Salafi Jihadi Global Tracker: Assessing the Role of Islamic State in the Owo Church Massacre in Nigeria

Salafi-Jihadi Global Tracker: Assessing Islamic State’s Role in Nigeria’s Owo Church Massacre

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

Take away key: The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) is unlikely to be responsible for the June 5 massacre of at least 40 worshipers in southwestern Nigeria. The attack on Owo Church underscores the complexity and ambiguity of the deteriorating security situation in Nigeria, in which a range of armed actors, including Salafist jihadists, are increasingly active.

At least four armed men massacre Catholic worshipers in Owo, a town in Ondo State, southwestern Nigeria, on June 5. The attackers detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at the entrance to the church before opening fire on the congregation, killing at least*40 people. Ondo State is a frequent victim of violence, including farmershepherd* murders* relating to land and bandit disputes flights,* but the Owo attack stands out for its high number of casualties. No armed group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Nigerian Security Council assigned* Owo’s attack on ISWA on June 9. It is possible, but unlikely, that ISWA is responsible. ISWA increased its operations outside North East Nigeria in 2022, although the North East remains its main area of ​​operations. As part of this increase, ISWA conducted bombing in May in southern Kogi State, just over 50 miles northeast of Owo, but these were not as coordinated or lethal as the Owo attack. In fact, ISWA has never carried out an attack of this magnitude outside of northeastern Nigeria. The Owo attack would mark a shift in both scale and geographic scope if ISWA is responsible. Owo’s attack would also mark an escalation in ISWA’s campaign targeting The Christians. ISWA targeted Christians outside northeast Nigeria with improvised explosive devices bars* and other audiences places. The escalation of attacks targeting Christians would align with the broader goals of the Islamic State. Other Islamic State affiliates in mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also targeted Christians in recent attacks and statements.[1]

Figure 1: Salafist-Jihadist Activity Outside Northeast Nigeria in 2022

Source: Author.

ISWA’s lack of media coverage of the Owo attack indicates that ISWA is unlikely to be responsible. ISWA has not issued any claims for the Owo massacre. The absence of complaints breaks with the usual pattern of ISWA. The group claimed responsibility for two bombings in south-central Nigeria in two days in May and June, for example. Neither ISWA nor other Islamic State media commented on the Owo massacre, despite its scale and alignment with other attacks and speeches targeting Christians. ISWA waited several months to claim some attacks in early 2022, but this rare event was intended to synchronize the claims with a global Islamic State media campaign, and none of the delayed claims were for such high-profile attacks as the Owo Massacre.[2]

The proliferation of armed conflicts across Nigeria means that several other groups could be responsible for the attack on Owo. Bandit groups entrenched in the northwest are spreading to other parts of Nigeria, kidnapping, extorting and killing civilians. The predominantly Fulani Muslim herders are increasingly to hit with non-Fulani Christian farmers over land use, a problem that climate change will further exacerbate. Secessionist ethnic group activists Indigenous peoples of Biafra attack government forces and civilians at low altitude insurrection* concentrated in the southeast. These various actors* are* asset in Ondo or neighboring states and have offensive* churches* in the old days. The uncertainty over who was responsible for the Owo attack reflects the wider deterioration of security in large parts of Nigeria.

Salafist-jihadist groups are not the primary drivers of this destabilization but participate in it and adapt to new trends. ISWA has increased its activities outside northeast Nigeria in 2022, claiming responsibility for attacks in Taraba, Niger, Kadunaand Kogi States. This change in operations may indicate that ISWA is attempting to expand the battlefield in response to military pressure* in its main areas of operations in north-eastern Nigeria, as it tent to be done in 2015-2016. Ansaru, linked to Al-Qaeda, also strengthened in 2022. It began to exercise control fieldwork in June after several years of incorporation in communities in northwestern Nigeria by offering them protection from bandit groups.

The expansion of Salafi-jihadi activity is compounding the security challenges facing the beleaguered Nigerian government ahead of the February 2023 elections. The violence could affect* voter registration and participation in the 2023 elections, further undermining the popular legitimacy of the Nigerian government. Quick fixes such as disturb ISWA cells* will not replace long-term solutions to growing societal problems.


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Documents Burning Congolese Christian-Owned Vehicles in Photo Report, ‘Amaq Video”, 17 May 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims Attack on Nigerian Priest’s Home, Reveals Responsibility for Past Months’ Attacks in Kogi and Taraba,” April 29, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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