Reports have emerged from the remote northeastern region of Nigeria that in-fighting has broke out within militant group Boko Haram after the so-called Islamic State (IS) group announced a new leader to its Nigerian affiliate last month.
In August, IS announced that Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s former founder Mohammed Yusuf, had replaced Abubakar Shekau at the head of the terrorist organization. Just days later however, Shekau insisted that he remained in charge of the Islamist group, whose insurgency has killed at least 20,000 people since 2009 and forced more than 2.6 million from their homes. In early September, sources in northeastern Nigeria reported that there have been deadly skirmishes between the two factions, even as the Nigerian military is seeking to finally rout the rebels in a sustained counter-offensive.
On 1 September, several fighters from Shekau’s camp were said to have been killed in two separate gunbattles that erupted with IS-backed Barnawi gunmen in the Monguno area of Borno state, near Lake Chad. While the Nigerian military has declined to comment on the reported in-fighting, one locate who lives in the area disclosed that “the Barnawi faction launched an offensive against the Shekau faction who were camped in the villages of Yele and Arafa,” adding, “in Yele, the assailants killed three people from the Shekau camp, injured one and took one with them, while several were killed in Arafa.” The attack prompted residents of Arafa to flee. The local also disclosed that fighters from Barnawi camp had the previous day attacked gunmen loyal to Shekau in Zuwa village in nearby Marte district, killing an unspecified number, adding that “the Barnawi fighters told villagers after each attack that they were fighting the other camp because they had derailed from the true jihad and were killing innocent people, looting their property and burning their homes.” News of the factional clashes has been slow to emerge because of the destroyed telecommunications infrastructure in northeastern Nigeria.
Since the death of Mohammed Yusuf in police custody in 2009, Shekau has led Boko Haram, waging a deadly, indiscriminate guerrilla war that has overwhelmingly targeted civilians in the three main northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. Within these states, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted mosques, churches, markets and bus stations while hit-and-run attacks have destroyed remote villages and have killed and maimed thousands of residents. Thousands of people, many of them women and young girls, have been kidnapped, with the widely most known hostage taking occurring in April 2014, when more than 200 schoolgirls were taken from the northeastern town of Chibok in an attack that sparked international outrage. In many videos and audio recordings that have been released over the years, Shekau has justified the attacks against the secular state, those who support it and anyone who does not share his radical interpretation of Islam. In March 2015, he pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and changed the group’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). However over the past year, there have been growing tensions within the group, and experts have suggested that the indiscriminate killings of civilians, coupled with Shekau’s “dictatorial” style, including secret killings of dissenting commanders, have caused a rift. This was evident shortly after his nomination, with Barnawi making a point of critiquing Shekau’s leadership and lambasting him for targeting ordinary Muslims.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group has announced that its West African affiliate, Nigerian-based Boko Haram, has a new leader.
Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who was previously a spokesman for the Nigerian-based militant group, has ben featured in the latest issue of an IS magazine, which makes no reference to Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader since 2009. However just a day later after the announcement, Shekau maintained that he is still the leader of Boko Haram, rejecting a successor who was announced just hours earlier by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group and effectively exposing the biggest rift yet amongst Nigeria’s deadly Islamic insurgents. An audio speech purporting to be from Shekau criticized al-Barnawi and said that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not respond to several letters from Shekau explaining that al-Barnawi is “an infidel” preaching “false creeds.” Shekau called the announcement “a coup,” adding “today I woke up to see one who is an infidel whom they want me to follow. No I wont…We cannot subject ourselves to people who are in ignorance of all holy books and teachings.” He also highlighted ideological differences with al-Barnawi, who promised in an interview that was published on Wednesday in IS newspaper al-Nabaa to end attacks on mosques and markets frequented by Muslims. Such attacks have been a hallmark of Boko Haram under Shekau, who has led the group since 2009. Shekau’s declaration could effectively pave the way for a break from IS and Boko Haram’s possible return to the influence of al-Qaeda. It could also cause insurgent rivals to turn their guns on each other.
Boko Haram, which is fighting to overthrow the Nigerian government, has lost most of the territory it controlled 18 months ago, effectively forcing the militant group to change its tactics and to launch hit-and-run attacks in northeastern Nigeria, as well as in neighbouring countries in the Lake Chad Basin, including Chad and Cameroon. Its seven-year insurgency has left 20,000 people deadly, mainly in the northeast of Nigeria, and has displaced thousands more. Shekau took over as the group’s leader after its founder, Muhammad Yusuf, died in Nigerian police custody in July 2009. Under his leadership, Boko Haram became more radical – carrying out more brutal attacks and killings. It swore allegiance to IS in March 2015. In numerous videos, Shekau taunted the Nigerian authorities, and celebrated the group’s violent attacks, including the April 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Nigeria’s army has claimed on several occasions to have killed him.
US officials indicated in early June that they see no evidence that Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram has received significant operational support or financing from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, more than a year after Boko Haram pledged allegiance to it.
The assessment, which is detailed by multiple US officials, suggests that Bok Haram’s loyalty pledge has so far mostly been a branding exercise designed to boost its international jihadi credentials as well as to attract recruits and appeal to the IS leadership for assistance. The US view of Boko Haram as a locally-focused, homegrown insurgency, is likely to keep the group more to the margins of the US fight against IS in Africa. The US military’s attention is largely centred on Libya, which is home to IS’ strongest affiliate outside the Middle East and where the US has carried out air strikes. According to officials, no such direct US intervention is currently being contemplated against Boko Haram. One US official has disclosed that “if there is no meaningful connection between ISIL (IS) and Boko – and we haven’t found one so far – then there are no grounds for US military involvement in West Africa other than assistance and training,” adding, “this is an African fight, and we can assist them, but its their fight.”
In public comments, senior US officials have disclosed that they are closely watching for any increased threat to Americans from Boko Haram and any confirmation of media reports of deepening ties with IS.
A senior US official disclosed on Friday that there are signs that Nigeria-based Boko Haram militants are sending fighters to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Libya, adding that there is increased cooperation between the two jihadist groups.
According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there have been “reports” that Bok Harm fighters were going to Libya, where IS has established a large presence, effectively taking advantage of the ongoing security chaos. He disclosed that “we’ve seen that Boko Haram’s ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh (IS),” adding that there have also been reports of material and logistical aid. Speaking to reporters in Nigeria, Blinken further stated, “so these are all elements that suggests that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off.” While little is known about the extent of cooperation between the two radical Islamist groups, Western governments are increasingly becoming worried that IS’ growing presence in North Africa, coupled with its ties to Boko Haram, could herald a push southwards into the vast, lawless Sahel region, ultimately creating a springboard for wider attacks across the region. According to Blinken, the United States is helping Nigeria in its fight against Bok Haram with armoured vehicles. However he declined to comment on a request by the West African nation to sell it aircraft. Earlier this month, US officials revealed that Washington wants to sell up to twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria in recognition of President Muhammadu Buhari’s army reforms. Congress however still needs to approve the deal. While under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the US had blocked arms sales, partly due to human rights concerns, Blinken has indicated that Nigeria has made several requests for military hardware, adding, “we are looking very actively at these requests.” Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama had earlier disclosed that the government had set up reporting mechanisms inside the military to monitor human rights, which should convince the US Congress to approve the sale. Furthermore, while Blinken has indicated that the military under president Buhari has made “important efforts” in order to address human rights, he noted that the US was “troubled” by an Amnesty International report, which was released earlier this month, that children were dying in military detention. The Nigerian army has rejected the report. Blinken disclosed that Washington was also concerned about an alleged army massacre of Shi’ites in northern Nigeria in December, during which, according to residents, hundreds were killed. He added that a state commission to probe the killings should provide a “transparent and credible report.”
A British official has also warned that Boko Haram jihadists are likely to step up cooperation with IS should the latter extremist group gain a stronger foothold in Libya.
IS first seized part of Syria and Iraq, however it later built up a foothold in Libya, exploiting a security vacuum. Speaking at a security conference in Nigeria, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond stated that “if we see Daesh (IS) establish a stronger presence in Libya, that feels much more to people here like a direct communications route, that is likely to step up the practical collaboration between the two groups.” Hammond added that “the intent is clearly there, the evidence of hard collaboration is still pretty sketchy.”
At the conference, which was attended by Nigeria’s neighbors and Western powers, a number of African leaders also warned that stability in lawless Libya was key to fighting Boko Haram and improvising security in the region.
In a speech, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the army had almost recaptured all territory it had lost to Boko Haram, noting however that the jihadist group still often stages suicide bombings. He added, “what remains is to dislodge the terrorist from their hideout in the (northeastern) Sambisa Forest and safely liberate the Chibok girls and other victims of abduction,” referring to a group of 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Buhari also stated that Nigeria’s army was respecting human rights when dealing with civilians, a condition from the US to fulfill requests to sell aircraft and other arms.
On 13 May, the United Nations Security Council disclosed that it is alarmed by Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, adding that it is throwing its support behind a Nigerian-led regional summit to confront the threat.
In a statement, the 15-member Council disclosed that it welcomed President Muhammadu Buhari’s “crucial initiative” to hold the Summit on 14 May, which will be attended by regional leaders as well as French President Francois Hollande. It adds that the summit should help develop “a comprehensive strategy to address the governance, security, development, socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis.” The Council also expressed “alarm at Boko Haram’s linkages with the Islamic State” and voiced “deep concern that the activities of Boko Haram continue to undermine the peace and stability of the West and Central African region.” Last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS and Nigerians have ben reportedly fighting in lawless Libya. The group also has ties with al-Qaeda-linked groups that operate in the wider Sahel region. The Council also renewed its call for regional countries Cameroon, Chad and Niger in a multinational joint task force to “further enhance regional military cooperation and coordination” to root out Boko Haram. It also demanded that Boko Haram “immediately and unequivocally cease all violence and all abuses of human rights” and “release all those abducted” including the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.
The Council statement was drafted by the United States as a show of support for President Buhari on the eve of the meeting.