Brief: Nigerian Bandits and Former Shekau Faction Likely Behind Recent Abductions

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 5

Released students after their having been abducted from Katsina State in 2020. (Source: Daily Sabah)

Executive Summary

  • Nigeria struggles to provide security to its population, though efforts like the use of artificial intelligence to track militant movement patterns may aid the government in the future.
  • On March 7, bandits in Nigeria’s Kaduna State abducted an estimated 280 students from a boarding school, just a week after around 200 women were kidnapped from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Borno State on February 29.
  • This latter attack, likely performed by the remnants of Abubakar Shekau’s faction, closely resembles the infamous 2014 abduction of approximately 280 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State.

On March 7, bandits in Nigeria’s Kaduna State abducted an estimated 280 students from a boarding school, which eerily resembled the infamous abduction of approximately 280 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State in April 2014 (Business Day [Nigeria], March 8). The abduction in Kaduna State closely followed the kidnapping of around 200 women from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Borno on February 29 (Daily Trust [Nigeria], March 7). Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) disapproved of its late rival Abubakar Shekau’s abduction of the Chibok girls and has not claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. On top of this, ISWAP would have publicized the kidnapping if it desired, thanks to its highly functional media operation coordinated with Islamic State (IS). It appears that the successors of Shekau’s faction were involved in the recent Borno abduction rather than ISWAP.

The Shekau faction is most likely responsible for the IDP camp abductions. There is effectively no other jihadist, militant, or bandit presence in Borno State besides ISWAP and the former Shekau faction. Given ISWAP’s silence and past disapproval as well as the fact that the kidnapping matches Shekau’s faction’s previous modus operandi, there is little question who the probable perpetrators were.

Shekau’s faction always ran little more than a rudimentary media operation, which has nearly ceased to function since Shekau’s death. As such, if the faction did carry out the Borno IDP abductions, its leaders would be unlikely to release any claim of having conducted the kidnapping (Punch [Nigeria], June 17, 2021). Due to the opacity of the current leaders of Shekau’s former faction, negotiating for the release of the Borno IDP abductees before they become “married off” will be extremely difficult. This is to say nothing of their sheer brutality and disregard for the lives of “infidels,” which encompass Christians and almost any self-professed Muslim who does not join the group’s jihad.

In contrast to the Shekau faction, the bandits who performed the kidnapping in the northwestern Nigerian state of Kaduna are more amenable to negotiation because they tend to be less ideologically motivated—they are, for example, not interested in “enslaving” their abductees for ideological purposes. Instead, the bandits are motivated primarily by monetary gain. They justify their actions by claiming that they are compensating themselves for the corrupt central government’s theft of the money that should have been shared with their communities (The New Humanitarian, January 30, 2023). This means that the bandits are far more likely to free their abductees than ISWAP is—if sufficient ransom is found. It is not clear at this point who would pay the ransom, however.

It is unknown at this point whether the bandits in Kaduna had any coordination with the former faction of Shekau. The Shekau faction, like ISWAP and the more minor al-Qaeda-aligned faction Ansaru, had been making inroads in northwestern Nigeria in the years before Shekau’s death. Shekau had even claimed a kidnapping of around 300 boys from a boarding school in Kankara, Katsina State, in northwestern Nigeria in 2020. This raid was notable because it involved jihadist communications with the bandits, although this may not have risen to the level of coordination (Punch [Nigeria], December 17, 2020). Until further details are known about both recent abductions in Kaduna and Borno, it remains possible that Shekau’s former faction influenced or coordinated in some way with bandits in the Kaduna abduction. On the other hand, it remains almost certain that Shekau’s faction is responsible for the kidnapping in Borno.

Ten years after the Chibok abductions, Nigeria has been unable to provide security throughout the country. As these abductions show, schoolchildren often bear the brunt of the insecurity. The country’s national security strategy requires a re-think. If anything, support may come from non-traditional security-related sectors, such as artificial intelligence (AI). For example, one Nigerian expert is using satellite imagery to identify movement patterns that could predict where bandit groups are moving in rural northeastern Nigeria. If implemented, this could help prevent future abductions both in the country’s northwestern reaches and in Borno (Vanguard [Nigeria], March 3).