by Laura Gardner
This article has been edited after the Nigerian military’s announcement on August 23rd that Abubakar Shekau was fatally wounded in an airstrike. Given that similar claims have been made by Nigeria’s army in the past, only to be disproven, we await further details and verification and may edit the story in the future.
Over the past month, there has been growing confusion surrounding the leadership of Boko Haram, the West-African militant group affiliated with the Islamic State. Early on August 23rd, the Nigerian army tweeted that an airstrike had fatally wounded Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s most visible figurehead since 2009, as well as killing an unspecified number of Boko Haram commanders. This is not the first time that Nigeria’s army declares Shekau to be dead, however.
BREAKING NEWS: NIGERIAN AIR FORCE RAID KILLS BOKO HARAM TERRORISTS COMMANDERS… “ABUBAKAR SHEKAU” FATALLY WOUNDED!
— Nigerian Army (@HQNigerianArmy) August 23, 2016
The news came after weeks of media speculation about an apparent split in the group’s leadership. Indeed, on August 2nd 2016, the Islamic State (IS) published an interview in its weekly magazine al-Naba with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a relatively unknown name who was introduced as the governor for IS’ West African affiliate. The interview did not mention Abubakar Shekau, sparking rumours of his replacement. Indeed, two days later, Shekau released an audio statement claiming that he was deceived, and that al-Barnawi was “an infidel”.
This is not the first time that Shekau and IS media outlets appear at odds. In March, after almost a year absent from the public eye, Shekau was shown in a video seemingly admitting the group’s defeat, only to be countered by an IS channel a week later.
In the August interview, al-Barnawi sustained that IS was still a force to be reckoned with in north-east Nigeria, and threatened to bomb churches and kill Christians. But al-Barnawi spoke about ending attacks on mosques and markets, in a sign of IS’ intention to steer away from the brutal tactics Boko Haram has adopted under Shekau. Even the interview’s style appeared to seek to distance itself from Shekau, with al-Barnawi’s address seemingly more measured and soft-spoken than Shekau’s usual video addresses, where he tends to be surrounded by armed gunmen, hailing battle victories and uttering threats vehemently.
The Nigerian government dismissed the interview as propaganda aimed at reviving a weakened insurgency, and said that this would not alter planned operations against the group. The Nigerian army’s military campaign in the north-east has significantly reduced Boko Haram’s ability to hold territory in the area.
In a further turn of events, Boko Haram media released a video on August 14th appearing to show 50 of the so-called “Chibok schoolgirls”, abducted by the group in 2014. Several security analysts have argued that the video leads to the impression that the girls are held by Shekau’s faction, keen to show it remains relevant in the fight against the Nigerian government.
In the video, a gunman appears with the students, demanding the release of Boko Haram prisoners held by the Nigerian government. One girl is shown reciting a scripted warning that many of the almost 276 girls originally abducted were dead or severely injured, while others had married Boko Haram fighters. The students were last seen in a video released this April, renewing popular pressure on the government to find them. However, some accounts suggest that the most recent footage is not new, which, again, sheds doubts on the current status of Shekau and his followers.
In any case, insecurity continues in Borno state, with Nigerian Immigration officials ambushed by militants identified as Boko Haram members on August 19th, and civilians reported dead. Although Boko Haram’s capacity to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Lake Chad region has been severely curtailed over the past year, it has since resorted to suicide attacks in Nigeria, but also Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Who is the new leader?
Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the IS-appointed leader of Boko Haram, is a relatively unknown figure. He had previously appeared as a spokesman for Boko Haram in a January 2015 sit-down studio interview, speaking calmly in Hausa, wearing a turban and with his face blurred out. According to the Counter Extremism Project, he is believed to be the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, killed in Nigerian police custody in 2009. Certain sources report that he has been involved with Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group (see below).
Note that Abu Musab is not to be mistaken with Khalid al-Barnawi, captured by Nigerian authorities in April 2016. Khalid is considered to be the leader of the Ansaru faction, which broke away from Boko Haram in 2012 due to its rejection of the indiscriminate killing of Muslim civilians and use of child suicide bombers under Shekau.
However, the breakaway organisation is reported to have collaborated with Boko Haram since the split, conducting kidnappings on Nigerian soil and freeing militants from Nigerian prisons, which arguably allowed Khalid to maintain influential ties within both Boko Haram and Ansaru. This has also, according to some reports, helped Boko Haram, via Ansaru, cooperate with other jihadi networks in the region, notably Mali in 2012, where Boko Haram militants, including Shekau, were reportedly sighted alongside members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda dissident group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Khalid has been credited with kidnappings by several of these organisations, which he appears to engage in regardless of ideological ties.
What now for Boko Haram?
To understand the group’s hierarchy and chain of command, it is important to discern exactly how IS has transformed the group’s organisation. Since pledging allegiance to IS in 2015, certain analysts have been sceptical of the actual form and level of support the Iraq and Syria-based organisation has granted its West-African subsidiary. They argue that the allegiance was merely a branding exercise, a retrospective application of the IS label aimed simply at increasing media traction. However, in June, a senior U.S. general claimed that a large faction of Boko Haram had split away from Shekau’s leadership, due to his failure to comply with IS guidelines. Moreover, there have been concerns about IS’ increasing presence in Libya and the potential for resource transfer this could bring. In April, a weapons’ convoy was intercepted on the Chadian border with the North-African country, which officials suspected was headed towards the Lake Chad area.
The August events show a split along both tactical and ideological lines. On one side, the international parent has thrown its weight, or rather that of its media powerhouse, behind a more “moderate” leader, rejecting aimless attacks on Muslims and seemingly more conscious about winning hearts and minds, at least in West Africa. Perhaps, with Shekau neutralised, either dead or side-lined, we will start to see this support translate into resources and training, contributing to the development of a decidedly more global jihadist network than IS was at its origins.
On the other side, having purposefully ignored IS directives, Shekau pushed himself, and however many fighters were still loyal to him, into a more isolated and localised insurgency. This would make such a faction less relevant for potential or future negotiations with the Nigerian government, as well as more vulnerable to concerted efforts from the Nigerian army and the multi-national Joint Task Force, which includes Chad, Niger, Benin and Cameroon, in addition to Nigeria. If the army has indeed succeeded in killing him this time, the likelihood of this faction’s survival and continued relevance would depend on its size and organisational capacity without its leader, but also on the strength of members’ rejection of al-Barnawi and a more moderate approach to jihad in Lake Chad.
Shape-shifting organisations and multiple allegiances
All in all, it remains difficult to assess the exact nature of internal dynamics in militant groups operating in West Africa, not least because of the obscure nature of their activities. Membership and cooperation between these organisations has historically been fluid and changing, and the adherence to specific ideologies is equally adaptable and instrumentalised. For instance, IS recruits and radicalises children in Iraq and Syria, and is brutal to civilians in territories under its control, including Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, the chain of command-and-control that links foot-soldiers to leaders seems unclear, with evidence of miscommunication and conflicting reports from official and unofficial sources reinforcing an image of haphazardness.
Nevertheless, as more information on the current state of Boko Haram’s leadership emerges, it will be interesting to see how its internal structure adapts to recent events, and how this affects its relationship with other regional networks. A particularly salient question will be how Boko Haram’s leadership changes will affect its de jure parent, the Islamic State, and whether they will further IS’ reach beyond Iraq and the Levant.