Navanti Data Indicates Islamic State Expanding in Lake Chad Basin

By Emily Levinson

Boko Haram (BH) and its Islamic State-affiliated splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), have traditionally maintained distinct areas of operation in the Lake Chad basin in West-central Africa. However, recent evidence gathered by Navanti researchers indicates that ISWAP may be seeking to expand into BH-held areas including Logone-et-Chari, the Cameroonian district bordering Lake Chad, which could lead to increased conflict between ISWAP and BH.

ISWAP first claimed an attack on security forces in Logone-et-Chari in April 2019. Since then, news sources have credited ISWAP with multiple distinct operations in the area, and ISWAP has claimed additional attacks through the IS-affiliated Amaq News Agency.

To investigate these reports, a local Navanti researcher interviewed 20 respondents across 10 towns in the Logone-et-Chari district, located in the far north region of Cameroon, concentrating on the area bordering Lake Chad. Based on these interviews, as well as open-source reporting, it appears that ISWAP has a visible—albeit limited—presence in Cameroon and is expanding further into the area from its strongholds in northeastern Nigeria and southeastern Niger. 

Interview Findings 

BH continues to be the most active insurgent group in the far north region of Cameroon: 13/20 respondents reported BH activity in their area, while 7 of these respondents also reported that ISWAP was active in their area. 

In addition, 11 respondents said they believed that insurgents come from Nigeria to carry out attacks, 7 of whom said that insurgents reach their areas by motorcycle. These factors point to a BH rather than ISWAP presence, as BH is more active along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and can therefore more easily carry out overland attacks. However, while BH may be the more dominant local threat, the proportion of civilians reporting ISWAP activity is nevertheless significant because there was no evidence of the group’s presence in Cameroon before April 2019. 

The security situation in our region… is not stable, especially for young herders. In our town of Hilé-Alifa, there [are] lots of insurgents coming and going toward Lake Chad and spreading terror. — 20-year old Herder, from Hilé-Alifa, Cameroon 

ISWAP Appears to be Using Fishing Boats for Attacks

It is likely that some, if not most, of the ISWAP insurgents active in Cameroon use motorized fishing boats to travel between Cameroon and the Lake Chad islands. A quarter of respondents (5/20) reported knowledge of insurgents using motorized fishing boats to travel to and from their area, and news sources have also reported suspected ISWAP activity in the Cameroonian and Chadian parts of the lake facilitated by use of fishing boats. This indicates that ISWAP insurgents have the means to reach Cameroon even when obstacles like BH presence, and rainy season flooding, render overland travel infeasible.

The groups are Abubakar Shekau and al-Barnawi. They put checkpoints in the lake to check the boats of Kanuri and Buduma fishermen. They steal the boats of Buduma fishermen and infiltrate villages on the islands. — 20 year old trader, from Darak, Cameroon 

The majority of ISWAP activity reported by respondents and open-source media took place in the islands of Lake Chad and nearby towns. Two respondents—one in Fotokol and one in the island town of Kofia—reported knowledge of conflicts between BH and ISWAP taking place on the islands of Lake Chad, and one respondent from Hilé-Alifa reported knowledge of ISWAP clashing with security forces in a town called Goré-Gordoum in Lake Chad. By contrast, in Kousseri, which is located farther south than the other towns where respondents were interviewed (and hence, farther inland), none of the respondents (0/6) reported knowledge of ISWAP presence. 

It therefore seems likely that ISWAP insurgents are concentrating their activity around the lake where they can make use of their pirogues. This strategy is not without drawbacks; in particular, many of these villages may be more difficult to access during the dry season, when Lake Chad’s shallow waterways shrink. However, drier roadways may also lead ISWAP insurgents to attempt attacks farther inland as villages away from the lake become accessible. There is also a possibility that BH presence in border areas will become less of a deterrent to ISWAP, as some sources have indicated that ISWAP has already begun establishing a presence in BH areas along the Nigeria-Cameroon land border.


Despite these reports of increased operations, respondents did not indicate that ISWAP had established a permanent presence in mainland Cameroon. While the group may eventually seek to expand its reach further into the country, it is more likely that ISWAP will continue to use the islands in the short-term as a staging area to launch raids into neighboring communities in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, especially in light of reported territorial conflict with BH there.

This new dimension has the potential to complicate efforts to restore security in the region, as security forces will have to take into account the different resources, strategies, and objectives of each group. ISWAP’s expanding target areas may also contribute to further conflict with BH as the two groups begin to clash over influence and limited resources in the area.