Leadership Struggle Reveals Boko Haram's War of Ideologies
05 Aug 2016
ISIS has announced a new leader for its Nigerian affiliate. The response of the sect's notorious leader Abubakar Shekau indicates a split over where the group aims its violence.
In the latest edition its publication al-Naba, ISIS published an interview with a man said to be the wali or governor of the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), more commonly known as Boko Haram. In the interview, one Abu Musab al-Barnawi gave insights on the group's founding, its bayat or oath of fidelity to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its ongoing armed campaign against the Nigerian government and its apostate allies. The unprecedented interview is one of the few windows the group has offered into its world, which is as secretive as it is violent.
Yet Barnawi's revelations left more questions than it answered. Who was the man who had risen to the echelons of one of the world's deadliest Islamist extremist movements? What happened to the sect's notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau? And what did Barnawi's vision for ISWAP mean for the future of the ISIS' largest affiliate?
In answering the first question, respected Nigerian researchers Ahmad Sakilda and Fulan Nasrullah, both of whom have been studying the Boko Haram insurgency for several years, identified Barnawi as a native of Nigeria's Borno state – as the name 'al-Barnawi' would indeed suggest – and as the third son of Boko Haram's original founder, Mohammad Yusuf. The 20-year old Barnawi is described by Sakilda as an Islamic scholar who had been prepped to eventually lead the Salafi-jihadi organisation his father had founded.
The al-Naba interview seemed to confirm that Boko Haram leader Shekau no longer headed the group. The fate of Shekau has long been a matter of mystery. Nigeria's military claims to have killed him on three separate occasions, and the elusive leader purportedly released a video message in March 2016 insinuating that his leadership was nearing its end. The veracity of this video remains open to contention. But within hours of the al-Naba release, Shekau announced his longevity in an audio message in which he challenged the claims that he had been replaced as leader of Jamaatu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Daawati wal-Jihad – conspicuously referring to the name Boko Haram used prior to pledging allegiance to ISIS. Shekau also insinuated that he was deceived, ostensibly by the same individual who was now challenging his rule. In a marked escalation, Barnawi issued his own audio message in which he accused Shekau of violating Islamic tenets, the foremost of which was killing innocent Muslims. If anything, what became clear was that the many-named Nigerian insurgency had fractured.
This would not be the first time that accusations of Shekau's non-adherence to Islamic principles created schisms in the Islamist extremist sect. In February 2012, the suspected Boko Haram offshoot known as Ansaru announced its formation in Kano city, the site of an earlier Boko Haram attack in which scores of people, mostly civilians, were killed. The group cited its creation as being a necessary response to Boko Haram's killing of Muslims. Ansaru's activity in Nigeria was short-lived but its formation was an important indicator of disillusionment with Shekau's rule and his indiscriminate use of violence.
There is also much speculation that Shekau's penchant for gratuitous violence, and his non-conformance to Salafi-jihadi doctrines, may have delayed the group's formal pledge of allegiance to ISIS. While the sect had adopted ISIS' nasheeds and iconography as early as 2014, Shekau's pledge of fidelity only came in March 2015. The period in between saw a marked improvement in Boko Haram's public image. Via its al-Urwah al-Wuthqa media house, the group begun releasing videos with slick production quality that saw Shekau swap his guerrilla regalia for robes worn by imams. When Boko Haram captured the town of Gwoza and declared the Borno town the capital of its dawlah, Shekau was videoed mimicking Baghdadi's iconic sermon in the Great Mosque in Mosul, in which he declared the formation of ISIS' caliphate. These videos releases, however, were not only aimed at depicting Shekau as a venerable theologian but also focused on dispelling claims that Boko Haram violence was indiscriminate.
A January 2015 release by al-Urwah al-Wuthqa contained what may be the only public appearance Barnawi made prior to his al-Naba interview. Identifying himself there as a mere spokesman for Boko Haram, Barnawi denied claims that the group was indiscriminately killing Muslims and, said that, as per al-Naba, the group's enemies were regional militaries and their apostate allies. The timing of the January 2015 interview was conspicuous as it came just days after Boko Haram militants were accused of killing more than 2,000 civilians – mostly women and children – in the settlement of Baga.
While the secretive nature of Boko Haram makes it difficult to describe the group, let alone predict its continually evolving trajectory, there appear to be clear fissures in the organisation. On the one hand we have an ISIS-aligned faction under the Barnawi's leadership. Barnawi seems intent on minimising casualties among non-apostates as it sets out to honour the ISIS axiom of baqiya wa tatamaddad, or remaining and expanding. By sparing the lives of Muslim civilians, Barnawi's leadership may not only uphold one of the most fundamental principles of Islam. It may also be seeking to attract the support of local communities to replenish its ranks, which have been depleted by regional counter-insurgency operations. On the other, we have Shekau and loyalists of Jamaatu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Daawati wal-Jihad whose penchant for gratuitous violence against those ISIS defines as Muslims has seen it lose support both internally and perhaps from ISIS' Levant-based leadership. What remains less clear, however, is whether rivalries between these opposing factions will remain limited to a war of words.