A large group of Boko Haram terrorists have moved out of their base in North-East Nigeria to join forces with criminal gangs and bandits in the North-West where they are engaged in weapons training and kidnapping, military sources told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Friday.
Boko Haram’s Islamic State-allied rivals have been consolidating their grip on the North-East after the reported death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, this year, in a major shift in Nigeria’s 12-year insurgency.
Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has been moving into Boko Haram’s territory, fighting Shekau loyalists, assimilating some or forcing others to surrender to the armed forces, security sources say.
Details of the Boko Haram fighters moving could be the latest sign of cooperation between jihadists and criminal armed groups in the northwest, who raid and loot villages and conduct mass abductions for ransom.
Two military sources said a faction loyal to Shekau based in Borno State had dispatched two commanders and 250 fighters to the Rijana forests in Kaduna State.
Both commanders are allied with Bakoura Buduma, a Boko Haram chief who remains loyal to Shekau and whose fighters are resisting ISWAP consolidation, according to security sources.
“They are the masterminds behind some of the abductions in the northwest,” one of the military sources said.
Both sources said Boko Haram militants were also training the gangs, known locally as bandits, in the use of anti-aircraft guns and explosives and other weapons.
A military spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment. Kaduna State officials also did not immediately reply to a request for confirmation.
A Nigerian security agency communique earlier this month had warned that a Boko Haram commander and foot soldiers were moving across the country from their base in Borno State to Kaduna State and other Nnorth-West states.
Analysts say there have been growing signs jihadists and bandit gangs are developing deeper ties where both stand to gain: Jihadists supply arms while profiting from criminal activity.
North-West Nigeria has long been plagued by the bandit groups, but this year, attacks and kidnappings have surged as the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic feeds criminality.
Criminal gangs have targetted schools in a series of high-profile mass abductions of students and pupils for ransom.
Attacks have also become more brazen. Last month armed criminals assaulted the country’s elite military college in Kaduna and kidnapped one officer while in June criminal gangs shot down an air force jet conducting operations on their camps.
Northwestern Zamfara State, neighbouring Kaduna, earlier this month began a military campaign against bandits and ordered a complete telecoms blackout in a bid to disrupt bandit communications.