Intense gunfire between two rival jihadist groups in northeast Nigeria has left several fighters dead, two sources with close knowledge of the incident reported on Monday.
Fighters in pickup trucks from a Boko Haram faction loyal to Abubakar Shekau stormed a camp belonging to rival IS-aligned Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), resulting in a fierce gun battle that caused several fatalities, the sources said.
The Boko Haram jihadists attacked the camp in Sunnawa village in Abadam district near the border with Niger to reclaim their women seized by ISWAP fighters in an earlier raid on their camp across the border in Niger.
Details of the clashes were slow to emerge due to limited telecom services in the remote region. “It was a deadly fight that left several fighters on both sides dead,” said the first source, while the other source said both sides suffered substantial losses as “the fighting was intense.”
ISWAP militants had earlier raided a Boko Haram camp in the Diffa region of neighbouring Niger where they kidnapped 13 women.
Boko Haram traced the women to Sunnawa in Lake Chad area which is under ISWAP control and decided to “extricate” them, said the second source. “The operation didn’t succeed, the women are still in the hands of their captors,” he said.
ISWAP broke away from Boko Haram in 2016 with IS-support in part due to its rejection of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The group has focused its attacks on soldiers and military installations although it has increasingly been targeting civilians since its takeover in 2018 by more hardline fighters who deposed its leader and executed his deputy.
Since the split the two factions have been locked in deadly skirmishes which saw ISWAP winning over Boko Haram fighters and territories controlled by Shekau.
“They have been killing each other, with each side declaring the other infidels. There is deep ‘mutual enmity’ between the two factions. Their differences are irreconcilable,” said the source, who dismissed rumours of a possible truce between the factions. “They nurse mutual enmity and view each other as apostates who should be killed.”
Many ISWAP fighters say they were forced to commit atrocities under Shekau including killing their parents and relations. Shekau’s execution of many of his commanders he accused of insubordination is seen by fighters loyal to them who switched to ISWAP as unforgivable, the sources said.
In December, a jihadist delegation from Mali and Libya met the leaders of both factions in the ISWAP-controlled Lake Chad area in a failed attempt to broker peace, the sources said.
Both camps refused to make concessions and the delegation left without achieving their mission as the two factions refused to recognise each other as Muslims. “Shekau’s flat refusal to stop indiscriminate killings and branding anyone who does not share his view as an apostate is the major wedge to truce,” said the first source, as is both groups’ rejection of power-sharing.
IS only recognises ISWAP leadership since its split from Boko Haram and once the two factions coalesced Shekau would have to abdicate and his faction absorbed into ISWAP, said the first source. “Shekau would rather die than give in and play second fiddle,” he said.