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ISIS affiliate expands territory in West Africa

While President Trump is declaring military victory over ISIS in Syria, an Islamic terrorist group in West Africa is gaining territory in northeast Nigeria and surrounding countries. Wall Street Journal reporter Drew Hinshaw joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the how the Islamic State West Africa Province is growing as counter-terrorism efforts in the region decline.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    ISIS controlled territory is shrinking in Syria and the U.S. president is declaring a military victory over the terrorist group. But there is another front growing in West Africa. A group known as ISWAP, the Islamic State West Africa Province is expanding its territory in northeast Nigeria and surrounding countries. I spoke with Drew Hinshaw, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who's been covering the rise of this new group. He joined us from Warsaw, Poland last weekend via Skype.

    Let's talk about the growth of ISIS in West Africa where they call themselves ISWAP. Who are they?

  • Drew Hinshaw:

    Thanks for having me. ISWAP is a faction of Boko Haram or was faction of Boko haram that split. For a bunch of reasons, one of which is they felt that Boko Haram was far too brutal on the civilian population, torching villages, all the kind of things you read about a few years ago, sending young children as suicide bombers. They had tactical advice from ISIS. Even ISIS thought that Boko Haram was too brutal, too uncivilian friendly and that's coming from ISIS. And so ISIS basically sent a series of letters to the Nigerian group that wanted to break away from Boko Haram and kind of laid out a theology that would be much more civilian friendly, the kind of things that guerrilla groups all around the world have tried to do.

    Befriend the local population, mesh yourself in the village, make it safe for people to come back to their farms and trade. I don't want to paint a totally, you know picture of this ISIS group as if they're civilian friendly as they have also you know, committed their own massacres. But compared to Boko Haram they are just much more better at the game of winning civilians and creating a local population that doesn't mind them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And your reporting points out that they are gaining territory and they're actually making strategic wins and defeating standing military bases.

  • Drew Hinshaw:

    That's right. They've been, I think they've overrun 14 last time you saw a count –14 military bases in northeastern Nigeria and some of those are you know little more than a bit of fense and you know kind of small houses but some of those are proper military bases. There was one on the shores of Lake Chad where you had German donated patrol boats. Troops would come there from Chad, Niger, Cameroon, it was a major center. And first they spied on it using hand-held drones and then the overran it and took away you know enormous amounts of weapons and supplies they reportedly gave back to the local population.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if you look at a map and see that they're kind of across now Nigeria, Niger, Chad. What what's their goal here? Do they want to build the equivalent of another Caliphate in Africa?

  • Drew Hinshaw:

    Yeah I think there's something like that you know and something people miss is that when ISIS declared their caliphate, they didn't consider their caliphate only Iraq and Syria. They kind of had these, sort of in a way, a very grandiose declaration that you know there was a province in West African, province in Yunnan, province Libya and the West Africa Province as they call it has gone pretty far. I think they've learned from some of ISIS's strategic errors. They haven't baited the West. If anything they benefited from the U.S.'s sort of shift away from counter-terrorism as the big U.S. military priority. And, I think that you could say that creating something like a territory where the Nigerian government frankly can't dislodge it and see some benefit of that kind of within that kind of … relationship.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I was going to ask, what is the U.S. role here? I mean, have we essentially retreated and considered that the Boko Haram fight is over and are we paying attention to this?

  • Drew Hinshaw:

    I think there's definitely a shift. And you know the Pentagon talk about a shift away from counter-terrorism as our overriding priority, contesting great powers like China. And that means that you've seen a lot of drawbacks and support for counter-terrorism missions in West Africa and elsewhere. I think we have cut troop levels by 10 percent in West Africa if I have got that number right, which is you know, it's not huge but you know when the U.S. does that the Nigerian see that as well and say well, it was not a priority for the Americans, frankly this is a part of our country that's not economically productive. Where we've had a stalemate for years and years and years. And I think it sends a signal you know, rightly or wrongly, that the Nigerians themselves de-prioritize or can de-prioritize this as a concern. The country has other challenges.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Drew Hinshaw, The Wall Street Journal joining us via Skype from Poland tonight. Thanks so much.

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