Nigeria warns kidnap gangs train with jihadists as cooperation grows

YOLA, NIGERIA - DECEMBER 06: Local hunters known as Vigilantes armed with locally made guns are seen on a pick up truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria before they move to border region between Nigeria and Cameroon to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram militants on December 06, 2014. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
File Photo: Local hunters known as Vigilantes support the Nigerian army in fighting Boko Haram militants. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Nigerian officials have warned that IS-aligned jihadists are training criminal gangs engaged in mass kidnappings in the country’s northwest, in a sign of deepening cooperation between armed factions.

The development could complicate threats facing Nigeria’s security forces who are mired in a 12-year conflict with Islamist militants in northeast Borno while battling criminals across northwestern states.

In a July 23 memo sent to his officers and seen by AFP, Nigeria’s immigration chief Muhammad Babandede warned of mass “movement of bandits from Zamfara in the northwest to Borno for intensive Boko Haram training.”

Nigerian officials use Boko Haram as a general term for all jihadist groups and heavily armed criminal gangs are often referred to locally as bandits.

“In view of this information,… you should intensify monitoring and surveillance around your area of jurisdiction with the view to gathering information,” the memo said.

Since the conflict began in 2009, several factions emerged within Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist group, with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) now the dominant force after breaking away in 2016.

Since May, ISWAP has consolidated control in the northeast and security sources say militants forged a closer alliance with gangs in the northwest following the death of Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau in clashes with ISWAP fighters.

Northwest Nigeria has long been terrorized by criminal gangs who raid villages, steal cattle, kidnap residents and burn homes after looting supplies.

Military deployments and peace deals have failed to end attacks by the bandits who hide in camps in Rugu forest, straddling Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara and Niger states.

Recently the heavily armed gangs have turned to mass kidnappings of students from schools and colleges to squeeze out more ransom cash.

The bandits chase financial gain and have no known ideological leanings, but there has been growing concern among security experts and officials over their ties with jihadists.

The alliance assures mutual benefits: Jihadists make money by supplying arms to the bandits who use them in raids on villages and kidnapping for ransom.

“It is no surprise that the bandits are moving to the northeast for training with ISWAP,” said one security source in the region who has been involved in fighting criminal gangs.

“The more the bandits forge an alliance with jihadists, the more they get radicalized, dimming the possibility of any peace deal with authorities.”