Two jihadist groups have for weeks been engaged in deadly clashes in their northeast Nigeria strongholds according to security sources and residents, who said hundreds of fighters had died.
Boko Haram militants have been fighting government troops for almost 14 years in a bid to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region.
But they have also been fighting against rival jihadists from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group, who emerged in 2016.
Clashes initially started over ideological differences, with ISWAP objecting to Boko Haram’s indiscriminate killings of Muslims.
But fighting between the two has escalated in recent weeks especially at Gerere and Juma’a Toro villages on the fringes of the Lake Chad in Abadam district near the border with Niger, an area where both groups assert influence.
“We are aware of the fighting going on between the terrorists which is good for us, so we are just watching and keeping an eye on how it unfolds,” a Nigerian intelligence source told AFP.
“It is hard to give a toll from both sides but the numbers are indeed huge. We are talking of more than 200 dead in Juma’a Toro alone,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.
– Fighting ‘quite intense’ –
Fishermen on the islands of Lake Chad said they could hear booming sounds of explosions and heavy gunfire from Gerere and Juma’a Toro.
“The fighting is quite intense. We hear loud explosions as the fighting rages especially at night,” fisherman Abubakar Alka told AFP.
“From the snippets we are getting, the fighting may go on for a while because Boko Haram is bringing in more weapons from its enclave on the Niger side of the lake,” Alka said.
Recent infighting started on February 19 when Boko Haram raided ISWAP’s strongholds of Tumbun Gini and Kayowa, another fisherman familiar with activities of the jihadist groups said.
Abubakar Kannai, a senior Boko Haram commander, aided by two other senior lieutenants Bako Falgore and Abu Umamah ransacked the two ISWAP-controlled islands. They broke into a prison and set free inmates, including hostages and erring fighters from their own group, according to the source.
“It was a prolonged fight that lasted from dawn till around 5:00 pm and forced ISWAP to abandon the two camps,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.
Fleeing ISWAP fighters moved out to Kukawa, Tumbun Kare and Barangu on the fringes of the lake.
“Boko Haram have (also) occupied Tumbun Ali and Kaduna Ruwa islands that were under ISWAP (control) and vowed to reclaim all the islands in the area which they claimed belonged to them before they were taken over by ISWAP,” the fisherman said.
In apparent reprisals ISWAP launched attacks on Boko Haram camps in Bama, Konduga and Mafa districts on the fringes of Sambisa forest.
– Join or die –
On February 24, on the eve of Nigeria’s presidential election, Boko Haram fighters abandoned their Gazuwa camp in Konduga district following days of ISWAP attacks that left several dead, including women and children, said Ibrahim Liman, a leader of a local militia protecting local communities against both groups.
The exodus led to the surrender of hundreds of Boko Haram fighters and their families to the Nigerian military, including four jihadist commanders, Liman said.
ISWAP, which is aligned to the Islamic State group, rose to become the dominant threat for Nigeria’s military after the death of Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau during jihadist infighting in May 2021.
Although some Boko Haram fighters joined ISWAP to avoid execution, others surrendered to Nigerian troops while the rest fled.
Some went to northwest Kaduna and central Niger state while others joined comrades on Lake Chad islands controlled by a well-known Boko Haram leader known as “Bakura”.
Official sources in Niger said on Wednesday that last week they killed about 30 members of the Boko Haram group and detained 960 followers, most of them women and children, who had fled Nigeria.