Details emerging from the abduction of over-300 boys on December 11, 2020 from a boarding school in Kankara, a small community in the northwestern Nigerian state of Katsina by bandits on motorcycles, support the assumption by pundits that the Boko Haram group which has waged war in the northeast of Nigeria for more than a decade, was the orchestrator of the brazen attack.
But in March 2021, Auwalun Daudawa, a notorious kingpin of one of the gangs responsible for abduction sprees in the northwest, claimed responsibility for Kankara. “I did that in Katsina because the governor [Aminu Masari] came out to say he will not dialogue again with our people,” he told the local Daily Trust newspaper, according to an Aljazeera report.
According to local media reports, the abduction had been a joint operation by seven different gangs who had sent a video to Shekau asking him to claim responsibility. They knew that the government “feared Boko Haram more than them” and would be willing to meet the demands quickly.
The plan worked, because according to the schoolboys, an unspecified amount was paid as ransom within days, even though the government repeatedly denied this.
Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that bandits were responsible for more than 2,600 civilian deaths in 2021 – a lot more than those attributed to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the same year – and almost three times the number in 2020.
On March 28, an unknown number of heavily armed bandits attacked a moving train between Nigeria’s capital Abuja and neighbouring Kaduna state. They detonated an explosive device to stop the train before shooting into the carriages, killing some passengers and abducting an unspecified number.
This happened a couple of days after an attack on the Kaduna International Airport and preceded another bandit attack on a military facility in Kaduna State.
Since the Kankara school kidnapping, Nigerian government officials and public commentators have been quick to assign blame for major bandit operations to “jihadists.”
But experts say this constant mislabelling represents a longstanding underestimation of the northwest armed bandits and the complex dynamics of the region’s evolving conflict.
A close examination of the activities of these bandit groups suggests that they pose a unique and perhaps, even more complex threat than Boko Haram and its factions, including ISWAP.
Key to their increasing notoriety and multiplication is increasingly easy access to sophisticated military-grade weapons, mostly through the many porous borders of West Africa and the wider Sahel.
But the high number of civilian casualties is also due to divergent modus operandi between armed bandits and the so-called jihadists.
For example, ISWAP, arguably still the most influential armed group in Nigeria today, focuses on attacking government forces and installations. Its commanders also tax and govern rural communities rather than terrorise them, said James Barnett, a research fellow at the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies, University of Lagos.
But the bandits comprise dozens of unaffiliated groups often competing for territory or spoils from raids and have no unified chain of command or single objective, complicating state efforts to conclude disarmament deals.
“There is no single leader or group of leaders that the state can negotiate with who has real control over the thousands of armed bandits operating in northern Nigeria,” said Barnett.
Unlike the armed groups operating in northeastern Nigeria, the bandits of the northwest who are also more in number, are mostly driven by economic opportunism and have no clear political ideology, said Fola Aina, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), in London.
Most of the bandits are ethnic Fulani and have grievances stemming from perceived marginalisation in a state of predominantly Hausa people.
In a recent interview, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna, one of the states most affected by the crisis, said the train attack bore the hallmarks of a collaboration between armed bandits and Boko Haram elements.
Seven nights before the attacks on the airport and the train, a middle-ranking bandit based in Aja in Zamfara forest received a call from a criminal boss in another forest closer to Kaduna.
The former told Al Jazeera that it was an invitation for a job in Kaduna but he turned it down because he “just had a new bride” and wanted to spend time with her and enjoy Ramadan at home.
He implied that the attack in Kaduna was financially motivated and executed by multiple armed bandits from Zamfara, the epicentre of the crisis, alongside a few members of Ansaru – another Boko Haram splinter group.
But it was also “because the military raided a settlement of the armed bandit leader who is the closest friend of Ansaru some weeks ago, killing eight of his men, taking close to 30 motorcycles and recovering 11 rifles,” he told Al Jazeera.
The bandit also said his comrades were willing to let the Ansaru members “take credit to create the Boko Haram impression and make the government more scared but the Fulani there are only interested in the money”.
Beyond reprisals for military operations and air strikes leading to the arrest of some of their own, the bandits are also motivated by vengeance against ethnic Hausa vigilantes who they accuse of killing their wives and children. This has led to attacks against host communities of the vigilantes.
Al Jazeera also learned that there have been multiple efforts by Ansaru to convert the bandits – but a difference in ideologies has frustrated those moves.
A January study published by the United States Military Academy’s Journal of Terrorism Studies, based partly on interviews with armed bandits and “jihadist” defectors, concluded that: “Nigeria’s armed bandits have grown so powerful that they are not in desperate need of cooperation with jihadis, let alone a need to convert to jihadism.”
For the Nigerian government at all tiers, understanding the layered dynamics at play could be useful for any counterinsurgency operations.