Islamic State – West Africa Province

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The Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP) is a militant group and administrative division of the Islamic State (IS), a Salafi jihadist militant group and unrecognised proto-state. ISWAP is primarily active in the Chad Basin, and fights an extensive insurgency against the states of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. It is an offshoot of Boko Haram with which it has a violent rivalry; Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau killed himself in battle with ISWAP in 2021. ISWAP is the umbrella organization for all IS factions in West Africa including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS), although the actual ties between ISWAP and IS-GS are limited.


The Islamic State's West Africa Province is officially termed "Wilāyat Garb Ifrīqīyā" (Arabic: ولاية غرب أفريقيا‎), meaning "West African Province". It is known by a variety of óther names and abbreviations such as "ISWAP", "IS-WA", and "ISIS-WA". Since ISWAP has formally absorbed IS-GS, it has also been differentiated by experts into two branches, namely "ISWAP-Lake Chad" and "ISWAP-Greater Sahara".


ISWAP's origins date back to the emergence of Boko Haram, a Salafi jihadist movement centred in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. The movement launched an insurgency against the Nigerian government following an unsuccessful uprising in 2009, aiming at establishing an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, and neighbouring regions of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Its de facto leader Abubakar Shekau attempted to increase his international standing among Islamists by allying with the prominent Islamic State (IS) in March 2015. Boko Haram thus became the "Islamic State's West Africa Province" (ISWAP).

When the insurgents were subsequently defeated and lost almost all of their lands during the 2015 West African offensive by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), discontent grew among the rebels. Despite orders by the ISIL's central command to stop using women and children suicide bombers as well as refrain from mass killings of civilians, Shekau refused to change his tactics. Researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi summarized that the Boko Haram leader proved to be "too extreme even by the Islamic State's standards". Shekau had always refused to fully submit to ISIL's central command, and the latter consequently removed him as leader of ISWAP in August 2016. Shekau responded by breaking with ISIL's central command, but many of the rebels stayed loyal to IS. As a result, the rebel movement split into a Shekau-loyal faction ("Jama'at Ahl al-sunna li-l-Da'wa wa-l-Jihad", generally known as "Boko Haram"), and a pro-IS faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi (which continued to call itself "Islamic State's West Africa Province"). These two groups have since clashed with each other, though they possibly occasionally cooperated against the local governments. In addition, Shekau never officially renounced his pledge of allegiance to IS as a whole; his forces are thus occasionally regarded as "second branch of ISWAP". Overall, the relation of Shekau with IS remained confused and ambiguous.

In the next years, Barnawi's ISWAP and Shekau's Boko Haram both reconsolidated, though ISWAP grew into the more powerful group. Whereas Shekau had about 1,000 to 2,000 fighters under his command by 2019, the Islamic State loyalists counted up to 5,000 troops. It also changed its tactics, and attempted to win support by local civilians unlike Boko Haram which was known for its extensive indiscriminate violence. ISWAP begun to build up basic government services and focused its efforts on attacking Christian targets instead Muslim ones. However, the group also continued to attack humanitarian personnel and select Muslim communities. In the course of the Chad Basin campaign (2018–2020), ISWAP had extensive territorial gains before losing many to counter-offensives by the local security forces. At the same time, it experienced a violent internal dispute which resulted in the deposition of Abu Musab al-Barnawi and the execution of several commanders. In the course of 2020, the Nigerian Armed Forces repeatedly attempted to capture the Timbuktu Triangle from ISWAP, but suffered heavy losses and made no progress.

In April 2021, ISWAP overran a Nigerian Army base around Mainok, capturing armoured fighting vehicles including main battle tanks, as well as other military equipment. In the next month, ISWAP attacked and overran Boko Haram's bases in the Sambisa Forest and Abubakar Shekau killed himself. As a result, many Boko Haram fighters defected to ISWAP, and the group secured a chain of strongholds from Nigeria to Mali to southern Libya. Despite this major victory, ISWAP was forced to deal with Boko Haram loyalists who continued to oppose the Islamic State. In August 2021, Abu Musab al-Barnawi was reportedly killed, either in battle with the Nigerian Army or during inter-ISWAP clashes. Later that month, ISWAP suffered a defeat when attacking Diffa, but successfully raided Rann, destroying the local barracks before retreating with loot. In October and November, there were further leadership changes in ISWAP, as senior commanders were killed by security forces, with Sani Shuwaram becoming the new leading commander.

By January 2022, ISWAP began to increase its presence in Nigeria's Borno State, occupying villages and setting up markets. On 24 January 2022, the small town of Gudumbali was captured, whereupon the insurgents declared it the province's new capital and drove away the local chieftains. Gudumbali is of strategic as well as symbolic importance, as it is placed at a well defendable position and was a major Boko Haram stronghold during the latter group's peak in power. However, Nigerian troops immediately counter-attacked this time, retaking the settlement, destroying the local ISWAP headquarters, and a nearby night market associated with the group.


Presence and influence of ISWAP and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger in early 2019

ISWAP's central command is subordinate to IS's core group headed by the Caliphs, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi respectively. Initially, ISWAP was headed by a single commander, termed the wali (governor). The group's first overall wali was Abubakar Shekau who was succeeded by Abu Musab al-Barnawi in 2016. The latter was replaced by Ba Idrisa in March 2019 who was in turn purged and executed in 2020. He was replaced by Ba Lawan. In general, the shura, a consultative assembly, holds great power within the group. This has led researcher Jacob Zenn to argue that the shura gives the group an element of "democracy". The shura's influence has allowed ISWAP to expand its popular support, yet has also made it more prone to leadership struggles. Appointments to leadership positions such as the shura or the governorships are discussed internally and by ISIL's core group; IS's core group also has to approve new appointments.

In May 2021, the shura was temporarily dissolved and Abu Musab al-Barnawi was appointed "caretaker" leader of ISWAP. By July 2021, the shura had been restored, and ISWAP's internal system had been reformed. The regional central command now consists of the Amirul Jaish (military leader) and the shura. There is no longer an overall wali, and the shura's head instead serves as leader of ISWAP's governorates, while the Amirul Jaish acts as chief military commander. "Sa'ad" served as new Amirul Jaish, while Abu Musab al-Barnawi became head of the shura. However, non-IS sources still claim that a position referred to as the overall "wali" or "leader of ISWAP" continues to exist. This position was reportedly filled by ex-chief wali Ba Lawan (also "Abba Gana") before passing to Abu-Dawud (also "Aba Ibrahim"), Abu Musab al-Barnawi, Malam Bako, and Sani Shuwaram in a matter of months in late 2021.

In March 2019, IS's core group began to portray ISWAP as being responsible for all operations by pro-IS groups in West Africa. Accordingly, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) was formally put under ISWAP's command. ISWAP and IS-GS maintain logistical connections, but the former's actual influence on the latter is limited.

In general, ISWAP is known to maintain substantial contacts with IS's core group, although the exact extent of ties is debated among researchers. ISWAP aligns ideologically with IS, and has also adopted many of its technologies and tactics. ISWAP uses suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and drones typical for IS. Researchers consider these as proof of support and advice by IS members from Syria and Iraq. IS's core group has probably provided ISWAP with not just technical, but also financial aid.

Known offices and leadership

Office Office-holders
Wali of ISWAP
  • Abubakar Shekau (2015–2016) – deposed for being too radical
  • Abu Musab al-Barnawi (2016–2019) – deposed and demoted without explanation
  • Abu Abdullahi Umar Al Barnawi "Ba Idrisa" (2019–2020) – purged and reportedly killed after some of his followers opposed his deposition
  • Lawan Abubakar "Ba Lawan" / "Abba Gana" (2020–2021)

Note: The office of overall wali appeared to have been abolished by 2021, but outside sources continue to claim that certain individuals are the "leader" or "wali" of ISWAP.
Post-2021 leaders:

  • Lawan Abubakar "Ba Lawan" / "Abba Gana" (July–August 2021)
  • "Abu Dawud" / "Aba Ibrahim" (from August 2021)
  • Abu Musab al-Barnawi
  • Malam Bako (c. October 2021)
  • Sani Shuwaram (from November 2021)
Amirul Jaish
  • Abdul-Kaka "Sa'ad" (c. 2021) – also administered the Lake Chad area by May 2021; moved to the Shura Council in August 2021
  • Sayinna Mallam Baba (killed in late 2021)
  • Malam Bako (acting, from September 2021) – also served as ISWAP defense minister; allegedly killed in October 2021
Head of the Shura
  • Abu Musab al-Barnawi (2021) – also acted as commander of Sambisa Forest from May 2021; killed in August 2021
  • Malam Bako (August–October 2021); allegedly killed in October 2021
Deputy (Naib)
  • Malam Bako (from July–August 2021)
Chief Judge
  • Khalifa Umar (c. 2020) – killed in a MJTF airstrike in January 2020; at the time, he had been the third-highest ranking commander in ISWAP
  • Muhammad Malumma (since 2020)
Chief Prosecutor
  • Ibn Umar (from July 2021)
Wali of Tumbuma
  • Lawan Abubakar "Ba Lawan" / "Abba Gana" (c. 2021)
  • Abba-Kaka (from July 2021)
Wali of Timbuktu
  • Bako Gorgore (until 2021) – killed in the battle of Sambisa Forest (May 2021)
Wali of Sambisa Forest
  • Vacant as of mid-2021
Wali of Lake Chad
  • Baba Kaka (?–2020) – initially a commander in the Timbuktu area; eventually executed on charges of corruption, misgovernment, insubordination, and others after Ba Lawan's rise to ISWAP leader
  • Goni Maina (c. 2020)
  • Vacant as of mid-2021
Ameer Fiya of Timbuktu
  • Huozaifah Ibn Sadiq (from September 2021)
Ameer Fiya of Sambisa Forest
  • Abou Abdulrahman (killed c. September 2021)
  • Abou Aseyia (from September 2021)
Amir of Marte
  • Muhammed Mustapha (from c. August 2021)
Fitya of Marte
  • Huozaifah Ibn Sadiq (until September 2021)
Chief Mechanic
  • Falloja (until 2020) – expert in building VBIEDs; executed by Lake Chad governor Baba Kaka on charges of dealing drugs


In contrast to Boko Haram which mostly raided and enslaved civilians, ISWAP is known for setting up an administration in the territories where it is present. As IS maintains to be a state despite having lost its territory in the Middle East, ISWAP's ability to run a basic government is ideologically important for all of IS. Despite not fully controlling the areas where it is present, ISWAP maintains more control over large swaths of the countryside than the Nigerian government and has created four governorates. These governorates, centered at Lake Chad, Sambisa Forest, Timbuktu, and Tumbuma, are each headed by a wali and have their own governing structures. Each governorate has its own military commanders, and sends at least two representatives to ISWAP's shura.

ISWAP collects taxes on agriculture and trade in its territories, and offers protection as well as some "limited services" in return, including law enforcement. The group appoints its own police chiefs, and its police also enforces the hisbah. The group makes considerable efforts to win local grassroots support, and has employed a "hearts and minds" policy toward the local communities. It encourages locals to live in de facto rebel-held communities. Among its taxes, ISWAP also collects the zakat, a traditional Muslim tax and form of almsgiving which is used to provide for the poor. ISWAP's zakat has been featured in propaganda distributed by IS's newspaper, al-Naba. ISWAP's "Zakat Office" is known to operate fairly systematically and effectively, raising substantial funds to support both ISWAP as well as local civilians. Experts Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner have described ISWAP's taxation system as being locally less corrupt and more fair than that of the Nigerian state; some local traders argue that ISWAP creates a better environment for trade in rice, fish, and dried pepper. At the same time, ISWAP is known for targeting agencies providing humanitarian aid, thereby depriving locals of basic necessities in government-held areas.

Military strength

MT-LB which had been captured and used by ISWAP before its destruction in March 2015

ISWAP's strength has fluctuated over the years, and estimates accordingly vary. In 2017, researchers put its strength at around 5,000 militants. By the next year, it was believed to have shrunk to circa 3,000. The group experienced a surge and regained much power in 2019, resulting in researchers estimating that it had grown to 5,000 or up to 18,000 fighters. By 2020, the United States Department of Defense publicly estimated that ISWAP had 3,500 to 5,000 fighters.

ISWAP is known to employ inghimasi forlorn hope/suicide attack shock troops as well as armoured fighting vehicles (AVFs). Throughout its history, ISWAP has repeatedly seized tanks including T-55s, VT-4s, FT1s, and armoured personnel carriers such as the BTR-4EN, and then pressed them into service. The group also relies heavily on motorcycles, technicals, and captured military tactical/utility vehicles such as Kia KLTVs.