Nigeria Holds Peace Talks With Jihadist Group

Nigeria Holds Peace Talks With Jihadist Group

DAPCHI, Nigeria—Nigeria said it is holding peace talks with a local Islamic State faction, in a test of whether a secular government can reach an accord with an offshoot of one the world’s most infamous international jihadist networks.

For more than a year, Nigerian envoys have met with representatives of Islamic State West Africa Province, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said Sunday. The discussions are being facilitated by the Swiss government, other officials said.

“Unknown to many, we have been in wider cessation of hostility talks with the insurgents for some time,” Mr. Mohammed said in a statement.

ISWAP, as the Islamic State chapter here is called, was once part of Boko Haram, the insurgency whose decadelong war with Nigeria’s secular state has left more than 30,000 people dead. Both groups remain active, launching near daily attacks on civilians.

People involved say the previously undisclosed talks—which call for a preliminary ratcheting down of airstrikes and suicide bombings—have gone beyond any others attempted by Africa’s most populous country.

ISWAP hasn’t commented on the talks.

Nigerian soldiers display a seized flag of Boko Haram rebels, whose insurgency has left tens of thousands of people dead. Photo: reuters file photo/Reuters

Last week, the discussion yielded a breakthrough: ISWAP released nearly all of the 110 girls, some as young as 10, that it had abducted in February from a boarding school in the frontier town of Dapchi. It was a goodwill gesture by a camp of jihadists interested in laying down arms, people close to that agreement said.

“Different conflicts have different ways of ending,” said one person involved. “It is a difficult situation but we could get there.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of the development. Some senior officials in Nigeria’s military and intelligence service are distrustful of the group and disinclined to reach a deal with terrorists who have killed tens of thousands of people and forced millions to leave their homes.

In addition, Nigeria’s Islamist insurgents are fragmenting, splitting into vying camps, and some officials and people close to the groups’ thinking said the ISWAP faction in negotiations may not represent the entirety of ISWAP, let alone the Boko Haram rebellion it broke from.

Boko Haram isn’t in the peace talks, two people close to the discussions said.

President Muhammadu Buhari is up for reelection—the retired general came to power in 2015 on a promise to wind down the conflict in Nigeria’s northeast. “This is significant… but it’s not clear whether we can really believe them,” said Matthew Page, a former State Department official now with London-based think tank Chatham House. “The other key point here is the political calculus: There are elections coming up.”

The negotiations represent a trial run with global ramifications, exploring whether a secular and at times repressive state can find a common ground for reconciling with a militancy publicly allied with Islamic State.

Since Islamic State emerged from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria five years ago, declaring a caliphate and war on the West, Washington has taken an uncompromising line against the terror group. A U.S.-led coalition launched an air campaign in 2014, pushing the jihadists from their strongholds in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Western allies in the Middle East have previously negotiated small battlefield agreements—such as allowing fighters and civilians to cross front lines, or creating safe zones for humanitarians to work. They are exceptions to an otherwise hard-line approach.

By contrast, Nigeria’s president has recently signaled his willingness to engage with the local fighters loyal to ISIS, aided by a Swiss government branch devoted to helping organize conflict talks. On Friday, Mr. Buhari told reporters he was prepared to offer amnesty to surrendering fighters.

“We are ready to rehabilitate and integrate such repentant members into the larger society,” he said. “This country has suffered enough.”

As part of its preliminary terms of the talks, ISWAP has asked Nigeria’s military to dial down airstrikes on the group. The government in turn has asked ISWAP to cease attacks on civilians and end the use of children as suicide bombers—a common tactic across the northeast.

That dovetails with ISWAP’s attempts to rebrand itself as the less brutal of the two jihadist insurgencies in Nigeria. Boko Haram, led by the warlord Abubakr Shekau, is committed to a more violent strategy: strapping preteen girls with suicide bombs, shooting up mosques, churches, markets, and schools, while retaining more than 10,000 kidnapped boys as soldiers in his army.

Boko Haram launched its uprising against Nigeria’s secular government in 2009, furious over the police execution of its spiritual leader. Since then, the government has proposed—and at times, retracted—peace offers, repeatedly struggling to establish credibility with the evolving Islamist insurgency.

In recent months, a series of successful hostage negotiations has seeded confidence between the Nigerian state and its adversaries, after years of broken agreements.

Between October 2016 and May 2017, Nigeria’s state, with help from the Swiss government, brought home 103 of the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from the school of Chibok in 2014. The deal involved a multimillion-dollar ransom paid to the Boko Haram faction that held them, the group led by Shekau.

Since then, it has brokered the release of oil workers, university lecturers, and police women kidnapped by Nigerian jihadists. There is no public record of the terms of those deals.

Last month, ISWAP kidnapped 110 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, a kidnapping that recalled the Chibok abduction. Within a month, Nigeria’s government—in talks once again organized by the Swiss government—worked out a hostage release agreement with ISWAP, which returned the girls to their hometown last week.

There was no ransom involved in that deal, say people familiar with its terms, who describe it as a confidence-building step by the two sides.

A driving force behind these talks has been one of the world’s quiet global peace brokers, Switzerland’s Human Security Division, a branch of its foreign ministry that organizes talks and hostage releases in some of the world’s thorniest conflicts.

The group has flown to Switzerland insurgents that other countries consider terrorists—from Colombia’s FARC rebels to Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip. In Nigeria, it has repeatedly helped the government structure peace talks with a group that in 2015 was the world’s deadliest terrorist group.

In Dapchi, the trading town upended by last month’s mass kidnapping, the optimism has yet to reach the local Christian community. One of their church members didn’t come home.

When the insurgents drove back into the town, in pickup trucks packed with hostages set to be freed, they were greeted by a cheering crowd of villagers.

The Sharibu family raced through the throng to look for their 15-year-old daughter, Leah.

She wasn’t there: Leah had refused to convert to Islam, the fighters said.

In the throng of reuniting Muslim families, her mother fainted.

“The terrorists are trying to divide Christians and Muslims by not releasing my daughter,” said Leah’s father Nathan Sharibu. “This hasn’t happened here before.”

Write to Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com and Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com

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