Amir Abu Imrana aka Abu Imar was an indigene of Marte Local Government Area (LGA) Borno state. He personally commanded a joint Boko Haram/ISWAP Special Forces of about 300 men – with numerous sightings along the northern locations of Kusuman Village.
The ISIS Commander is believed to have died in Sabon Tunbuns after he was mortally wounded in a fierce encounter with elements of the Nigerian troops and MNJTF sector 3 in Marte LGA on Sunday 14th June 2020. Sources say he was immediately buried by his own fighters.
The identity of one of ISIS in Africa’s most notorious Commander in Chief, Amir Abu Imrana remains a closely guarded secret even upon his death. What is certain is that Boko Haram/ISWAP West Africa leadership will quickly replace the ‘3 Star General’ and jihadist Commander in Chief.
Perhaps, the strategic leadership role of Amir Abu Imrana in the battlefield is an open secret to explore.
Here we examine the impact his death will have in the battlefield (if fully exploited by regional forces) vis a vis the ongoing regional Counter Insurgency (COIN) war against the most active and deadly ISIS/Al-Qaeda linked jihadist affiliates in the world.
Abu Imrana was the brain behind the recently coordinated attacks by newly appointed Commanders who ambushed Monguno town deploying one of the special purpose suicide bound vehicle improvised explosive device (SBVIED), Gubio town, Nganzai and the United Nations Humanitarian office in Borno state. He had previously directed several attacks on the Nigerian military garrisons including attacks at Garunda, Metele and other strategic military locations in the shores of Lake Chad.
Amir Abu Imrana doubled as a commanding officer for ISWAP factions after both jihadist groups agreed to establish a coalition of convenience against the Nigeria Army and the MNJTF Lake Chad contributing troops in April 2020. His death will impact on Boko Haram/ISWAP planning and battlefield command. In particular , attacks directed on hard military and soft civilian targets in the region.
Amir Abu Imrana is said to have been one of JAS leader Abubakar Shekau‘ most loyal but ruthless commanders and Shura Council member after the death of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. He sat along side senior Boko Haram leaders like late Mamman Nur (then deputy to Shekau) and was part of the inner circle commanders who initiated the strategic idea of Boko Haram forced relocation to the Sambisa Forest after the 2009 troubles. A displacement that was precipitated upon Boko Haram leadership following heavy Nigeria military deployment and the formation of the local CJTF in the BAY States to fish out known Boko Haram members from their urban hideouts.
In 2018 Abu Imrana replaced a high profile ISWAP commander in Chief Abu-Nura after he was killed in one of the strikes on SabonTumbu village by the Nigerian Army and Nigerian Air Force coordinated strike. Abu-Nura, until his own death was in charge of Jibillaram-Dabar Masara axis in the Lake Chad region.
In early April of 2020, ISWAP lost hundreds of key fighters after a coordinated heavy ground and aerial clearance operations launched by the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Air Force and the Multi-National Joint Task Force sector 3 around the Lake chad shore side of Chad and Niger republic.
Following the devastating strike, Boko Haram/ISWAP rival factions agreed for a temporary truce after a reconciliation summons initiated by a group of about 15 senior AZWAJ scholars on 14th April 2020. AZWAJ is a joint ISIS network of high profile jihadist scholars/mediators linked to ISIS core affiliated groups operating mainly in Mali and Libya.
Amir Abu Imrana was one of the main ISWAP commanders amongst a selected high profile leaders who engaged directly with the AZWAJ mediators from Mali and Libya. The main purpose was to merge rival forces and reorganise the operational structure of Boko Haram and ISWAP splinter factions. Other ISWAP leaders in attendance included Imam Goni Umar (A leading IWAP Scholar) who succeeded late Mohammed Shuwa (the ISWAP Former Chief Judge killed by Nigerian Air Force strike at Duguri); Amir Baba- kaka (Governor of the Lake Chad General Area – reported to be recovering from gun shot wounds); Mallam Ibrahim; Mallam Sa’ad; Abu Abdullahi and Bako Fulgori. From Boko Haram factions, a representative of JAS Shekau faction; Bako Borzogo and Modu Sulum were in attendance.
Moles in Jihadist ranks
Amongst the strategic reforms sanctioned by Amir Imrana, Boko Haram/ISWAP leadership agreed to disband all the ‘al-shabah formations’ – a selected group of men, women and young children who served only as ‘Police officers’ manning strategic exit and entry locations in the self proclaimed Dawla. The main role of ISWAP police officers was to report, warn and protect locations occupied by key ISWAP military fighters and armoury.
The issue of tribalism amongst rank and file of Boko Haram/ISWAP membership is not new and was considered a major source of dispute amongst several jihadist units. Tribalism was one of many key reasons Amir Imrana and other commanders sided with Mamman Nur (then Deputy to Shekau, a Shuwa Arab from Cameroon- Maroua region) to break ranks and form the splinter faction of ISWAP in 2015. These commanders convinced young Abu Musab Al Barnawi and Ba’aa Idrissa (the surviving sons of Mohammed Yusuf) to break ranks with Shekau and form a new faction – ISWAP.
Boko Haram ISWAP leadership treats the Kanuri’s different from Fulfulde, Arabic, Hausa and Buduma speaking tribes. The Kanuris for example, are highly favoured in appointments for key positions. Followed closely by the Arabic speaking local tribes. Those who only speak local Hausa and Fulfulde are down the pecking order of preferential treatment. Although the cattle rich Fulanis are highly protected for economic reasons and their mastery of the complex routes in the Tumbuns of Lake Chad Basin. Boko Haram/ISWAP factions rely on Fulani cattle breeders for meat; to graze their cattle; transport to local cattle markets and sell on their behalf. Cattle breeding and rustling is a vital economic lifeline for jihadist survival and a steady source of income in an area under state of emergency since 2013.
The AZWAJ mediators reunited and reorganised all factions of the Buduma tribes around Abadam, Kukawa, Kanuri , Shuwa Arabic and others. It was agreed that all local residents in and around the Dawla should leave within two months – including about 1000 fishermen. The leadership suspected that local fishermen and residents who moved freely to allow for trade, could have been infiltrated by regional state security services to gather valuable intelligence against Boko Haram/ISWAP activities.
Under Abu Imrana – The jihadist vowed to prevent any return of IDPs to Baga and other strategic towns. Amir Abu Imrana was personally tasked to visit and hold meetings with other commanders including Amir Umaru Leni, Amir Babakaka and Goni Maina. A letter written in Hausa was distributed to local communities in Marte LGA and Gubio warning residents against collaboration with the Nigerian security services.
He recently ordered for the deployment of 21 VBIEDs stationed at KOYAWA to target Nigerian Army and MNJTF military positions. The images show one of the SVBIED vehicles designed by Amir Imrana’s men. Same vehicle deployed but later recovered and destroyed by Nigeria Army after it failed to detonate during the failed Boko Haram ISWAP attacks on Monguno town.
Besides the use of young children and girls as suicide bombers, Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) has been one of ISIS’s most powerful and versatile weapons deployed against the Nigerian Army and regional MNJTF troops. ISWAP has consistently adapted its SVBIED designs to match the complex operational environment and other weather factors; modifications in armour, payload organization, colour, and detonation technology. Advanced SVBIED designs have been shared between various Boko Haram and ISWAP factions through individual technicians and via technology transfer.
Sources say certain components of the SVBIED match the 250kg Nigeria Air Force air-dropped general purpose high-explosive bombs. Some of these large bombs sink into deep marsh/muddy areas of the Lake Chad Islands and fail to detonate on targets – rendering the region one of the most complex and challenging in COIN engagements. The SVBIED is described as an earthquake monster IED bomb further illustrating the fact that the Nigerian Army and the regional states are fighting the most brutal COIN in the world within Northern Nigeria – Sambisa Forest and the Lake Chad Islands. All hands, both local and international must be on deck to uproot ISIS and AlQaeda from the region.
The demise of Amir Abu Imrana presents another opportunity for MNJTF regional troops (Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad) to coordinate efforts, plan and strike Boko Haram/ISWAP regional capacity at its weakest point – lacking of an experienced battlefield leadership. At least before he is replaced by another commander.
Otto, CMAS – Director of Counter Terrorism & Organized Crime at Global Risk International Ltd UK. Twitter: @ottotgs