Are Nigeria’s bandits a new Boko Haram cell or rival ‘terrorists’? | Features

Anka, Nigeria – On December 11, 2020, greater than 300 boys were abducted from a boarding school in Kankara, a small neighborhood within the northwestern Nigerian state of Katsina by gunmen on bikes.

The incident match Boko Haram’s modus operandi, and the group’s chief Abubakar Shekau claimed accountability for the assault in an audio message, earlier than releasing a video of the kidnapped youngsters.

This additional lent credence to the idea by Nigerian politicians and pundits that the group which has waged struggle within the northeast for more than a decade, was the orchestrator of the brazen assault.

Inside a month, the victims have been launched.

However in March 2021, Auwalun Daudawa, a infamous kingpin of one of many gangs answerable for abduction sprees within the northwest, claimed accountability for Kankara. “I did that in Katsina as a result of the governor [Aminu Masari] got here out to say he won’t dialogue once more with our folks,” he instructed the native Every day Belief newspaper.

In keeping with native media studies, the kidnapping had been a joint operation by seven totally different gangs who had despatched a video to Shekau asking him to assert accountability. They knew that the federal government “feared Boko Haram greater than them” and could be prepared to satisfy the calls for shortly.

The plan labored. According to the schoolboys, an unspecified quantity was paid as ransom inside days, although the federal government repeatedly denied this.

Mislabelling and underestimation

Since 2010, gangs of bandits have run riot in huge swaths of northwest Nigeria however solely in the previous couple of years has the disaster ballooned into nationwide prominence in Africa’s most populous nation.

Information from the Armed Battle Location & Occasion Information Undertaking (ACLED) exhibits that bandits were responsible for greater than 2,600 civilian deaths in 2021 – much more than these attributed to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the identical yr – and virtually thrice the quantity in 2020.

However debate has been raging on many particulars concerning the bandits, together with their capability to shock the state and whether or not they have been petty criminals or extra superior gangsters. In January 2022, the federal government proscribed them as “terrorists”.

On March 28, an unknown variety of closely armed males attacked a moving train between Nigeria’s capital Abuja and neighbouring Kaduna state. They detonated an explosive system to cease the practice earlier than capturing into the carriages, killing a minimum of eight folks and abducting a nonetheless unspecified variety of passengers.

This occurred a few days after an assault on a world airport and preceded one other attack on a military facility – all in Kaduna.

The practice assault was one of many highest-profile assaults to this point in northern Nigeria and triggered a debate. However throughout social media and even within the corridors of energy, the episode is being broadly attributed, as soon as once more, to Boko Haram.

Because the Kankara faculty kidnapping, Nigerian authorities officers and public commentators have been fast to assign blame for main bandit operations to “jihadists”.

However consultants say this fixed mislabelling represents a longstanding underestimation of the northwest armed bandits and the complicated dynamics of the area’s evolving battle.

Two bandits sit under a shade at the outskirt of a controlled community in Zurmi, Zamfara State, Nigeria
Two bandits – one in army camouflage – sit underneath the shade of a tree on the outskirt of a managed neighborhood in Zurmi, Zamfara, Nigeria [Credit: Yusuf Anka/Al Jazeera]

Deadlier than Boko Haram?

An in depth examination of the actions of those teams means that they pose a singular and maybe, much more complicated risk than Boko Haram and its factions, together with ISWAP.

Key to their growing notoriety and multiplication is more and more easy accessibility to classy military-grade weapons, principally by way of the various porous borders of West Africa and the broader Sahel.

However the excessive variety of civilian casualties can also be because of divergent modus operandi between armed bandits and the so-called jihadists.

For instance, ISWAP, arguably nonetheless probably the most influential armed group in Nigeria right this moment, focuses on attacking authorities forces and installations. Its commanders additionally tax and govern rural communities reasonably than terrorise them, mentioned James Barnett, a analysis fellow on the Institute of African and Diaspora Research, College of Lagos.

However the bandits comprise dozens of unaffiliated teams typically competing for territory or spoils from raids and haven’t any unified chain of command or single goal, complicating state efforts to conclude disarmament offers.

“There isn’t any single chief or group of leaders that the state can negotiate with who has actual management over the 1000’s of armed bandits working in northern Nigeria,” mentioned Barnett.

Not like the armed teams working in northeastern Nigeria, the bandits of the northwest who’re additionally extra in quantity, are principally pushed by financial opportunism and haven’t any clear political ideology, mentioned Fola Aina, a fellow on the Royal United Providers Institute for Defence and Safety Research (RUSI), in London.

However the opportunity of them adopting one quickly – and even synergy between each teams – can’t be dominated out.

Many of the bandits are ethnic Fulani and have grievances stemming from perceived marginalisation in a state of predominantly Hausa folks.

Consequently, they’re “potential prime targets for manipulation and being co-opted by jihadis working throughout the area, who’ve extra clearly outlined political aims and are eager to extend the variety of their foot troopers, following the deaths of many by the hands of Nigerian safety forces,” mentioned Aina.

A layered battle

And now the federal government could also be recognising the indicators, too.

After the Abuja-Kaduna practice assault, sources throughout the Nigerian authorities blamed Boko Haram for these assaults and urged that armed bandits didn’t possess the coordination and energy to plan such an assault.

However in a latest interview, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna, one of many states most affected by the disaster, mentioned the assault bore the hallmarks of a collaboration between armed bandits and Boko Haram parts.

This view was bolstered on April 13 by data minister Lai Mohammed who said there was “an unholy handshake” at play.

Seven nights earlier than the assaults on the airport and the practice, a middle-ranking bandit based mostly in Aja in Zamfara forest obtained a name from a prison boss in one other forest nearer to Kaduna.

The previous instructed Al Jazeera that it was an invite for a job in Kaduna however he turned it down as a result of he “simply had a brand new bride” and needed to spend time together with her and revel in Ramadan at dwelling.

He implied that the assault in Kaduna was financially motivated and executed by a number of armed bandits from Zamfara, the epicentre of the disaster, alongside a number of members of Ansaru – one other Boko Haram splinter group.

However it was additionally “as a result of the army raided a settlement of the armed bandit chief who’s the closest good friend of Ansaru some weeks in the past, killing eight of his males, taking near 30 bikes and recovering 11 rifles,” he instructed Al Jazeera.

The bandit additionally mentioned his comrades have been prepared to let the Ansaru members “take credit score to create the Boko Haram impression and make the federal government extra scared however the Fulani there are solely within the cash”.

Past reprisals for army operations and air strikes resulting in the arrest of a few of their very own, the bandits are additionally motivated by vengeance towards ethnic Hausa vigilantes who they accuse of killing their wives and kids. This has led to assaults towards host communities of the vigilantes.

Al Jazeera additionally realized that there have been a number of efforts by Ansaru to transform the bandits – however a distinction in ideologies has annoyed these strikes.

From 2019 to 2020, Ansaru members held a collection of preaching workouts in cities like Munhaye and Dandallah, each in Zamfara. Throughout these sermons, they directed the bandits to desist from stealing, smoking, consuming, adultery, and to embrace fasting and prayers.

The bandits ignored this, resulting in the deaths of 5 armed bandits and the planting of an explosive that detonated, ensuing within the loss of life of a high-profile bandit chief.

This severed relations between a number of armed bandits and the Ansaru, with the previous even giving the latter an ultimatum sooner or later. This may occasionally jeopardise any future collaborations, apart from business functions.

A January study printed by america Navy Academy’s Journal of Terrorism Research, based mostly partly on interviews with armed bandits and “jihadist” defectors, concluded that: “Nigeria’s armed bandits have grown so highly effective that they don’t seem to be in determined want of cooperation with jihadis, not to mention a must convert to jihadism.”

For the Nigerian authorities in any respect tiers, understanding the layered dynamics at play could possibly be helpful for any counterinsurgency operations.