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.
Boko Haram has been carrying out attacks with increased frequency and deadliness since the Nigerian military declared in October that the insurgents had agreed to a ceasefire. The recent wave of attacks across northern Nigeria have demonstrated the terrorist group’s continued abilities to strike at will in the region despite a state of emergency that was put in place to curb the group’s five year insurgency.
The most recent attacks attributed to Boko Haram occurred Monday in the northeastern state capitals of Damaturu and Maiduguri. At least five people were killed and 32 wounded when twin blasts targeted a crowded market in Maiduguri. The latest attack in the Borno state capital comes nearly a week after two female suicide bombers attacked the same market on 25 November, killing 78 people. Several witnesses reported Monday that two female bombers were responsible for the attacks. A separate attack in Damaturu, the capital of neighbouring Yobe state, began shortly after 05:00 local time (0400 GMT), with militants setting fire to a riot police base, and later attacking a primary school and the city’s university. On the ground sources reported that Boko Haram fighters, who have obtained most of their weapons by seizing them from the Nigerian army, appeared to be trying to gain access to military equipment stockpiled in the city.
Monday’s attacks on the two state capitals appear to be a continued acceleration of extremist violence in northeastern Nigeria, which in recent weeks has seen insurgents staging attacks on an almost daily basis. Over the past two weeks, attacks linked to Boko Haram have killed at least 220 people, with some experts indicating that the number is likely closer to 300. On Friday, at least 120 people were killed after three explosions occurred during prayer hours at one of the largest mosques in the city of Kano. Security officials believe that the Grand Mosque in Kano may have been targeted after one of Nigeria’s top Islamic leaders recently issued a call to arms to fight Boko Haram. On Thursday, at least forty people were killed after a bomb exploded at a bus station in Mubi, the second largest city in Adamawa state. While some of these attacks have yet to be claimed, Boko Haram is widely suspected to be responsible.
Boko Haram’s attacks and the recent seizure of several towns in northeastern Nigeria have killed thousands of civilians and forced many to flee, resulting in a massive displacement that is creating a humanitarian crisis in Africa’s most populous nation, and in neighbouring states. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch earlier this year, from January to June 2014, Boko Haram attacks killed at least 2,053 people. The recent escalation of attacks has also caused thousands to flee, with many seeking shelter elsewhere in Nigeria, or opting to cross the border in neighbouring Cameroon or Niger.
Earlier this month, the militant group seized a town in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state, killing nearly fifty people and forcing at least 3,000 people to flee to Niger. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, since May 2013, at least 100,000 people have fled to Niger. Last month, Boko Haram seized control of the town of Mubi, in Adamawa state. That attack forced at least 13,000 people to flee to Cameroon. Continued violent attacks will only worsen the already fragile humanitarian situation in both Nigeria and in neighbouring states.
Boko Haram’s expanding threat and recent cross-border raids in Cameroon have demonstrated the militant group’s desires to expand their operations. Fears that Boko Haram fighters may soon target neighbouring states have prompted officials in Niger and Cameroon to close schools and health centres located along the borders with northern Nigeria over fears of attacks carried out by the Islamist group. Many civilians living in towns close to the porous border have opted to leave, seeking safety elsewhere.
The Nigerian government’s state of emergency, which was imposed in May 2013, has done little to curb the violence. The recent denial of a third extension of the emergency rule demonstrated that Nigerian MP’s, like Nigerian civilians, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the situation. The Nigerian government’s security strategy now remains uncertain while the tempo of Boko Haram attacks is likely to increase over the month of December as the holiday season approaches.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed nearly fifty students in a school in northeastern Nigeria. The attack, which has been blamed on Boko Haram, is the latest in a series of atrocities against schoolchildren in the state of Yobe and is one of the deadliest attacks against schools teaching a so-called Western curriculum.
During the early morning hours, a suicide bomber targeted students at the Government Comprehensive Senior Science Secondary School in Potiskum. The attack occurred at 7:50 AM (0650 GMT) as students were waiting to hear the principal’s daily address. National police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu confirmed the incident, disclosing that at least 48 students, all believed to be in their teens, were killed while 79 others were injured. According to survivors, some 2,000 students had gathered for Monday morning’s weekly assembly. The suicide bomber was wearing a school uniform and entered the school unnoticed. Officials believe that the explosives were hidden in a type of rucksack that is popular with students. Although investigators have released minimal details about the bomber, months ago, Nigeria’s military reported finding a bomb factory in the northern city of Kano, where explosives were being sewn into rucksacks. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, however Boko Haram is believed responsible.
Frustration with the government has grown high in recent weeks, as Boko Haram has increased its tempo of attacks in the wake of an October 17 announcement by the government, which claimed to have brokered a cease-fire. Boko Haram’s leader has denied these negotiations, stating that no truce has been reached. On the ground sources reported Monday that angry locals had blocked access to the school and an adjoining hospital, preventing security forces from getting close to the site of the explosion. Family members of wounded students reported Monday that the school did not have proper security, with one local disclosing that three months ago, an anti-bomb squad was called in after officials discovered a bomb at the school. While the federal government of President Goodluck Jonathan, who recently announced that he will run for re-election in February 2015, has promised more security for schools located in northeastern Nigeria, Monday’s attack has shown that militants operating in the region continue to have relative easy access to schools in the area and are able to disguise themselves as students and enter schools without being approached by officials.
Monday’s attack came a day after the release of a new Boko Haram video, in which the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, again rejected the Nigerian government’s claims of a ceasefire and peace talks. It also comes a week after a suicide bomb attack in the same city killed thirty people a week ago when suspected Boko Haram fighters attacked a religious procession of moderate Muslims.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has carried out numerous attacks targeting schools that teach a so-called Western curriculum. In February, gunmen killed at least 40 students after throwing explosives into the dormitory of a government boarding school in Buni Yadi, also in Yobe state. In July 2013, 42 students were killed when Boko Haram stormed dormitories in a gun and bomb attack on a government boarding school in the village of Mamudo, near Potiskum.
Over the past several weeks, Nigeria has been rapidly losing control of large areas of the northeast to Boko Haram, which is attempting to carve out an Islamic State. With reports surfacing this week that the militant group has “completely surrounded” the city of Maiduguri, if the Nigerian military fails to carry out military operations to secure the area and reinforce the capital city, it is highly likely that Borno state, along with some areas of neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe states, will fall to the militant group in the coming weeks.
Traditional elders in Borno state warned this week that Nigeria’s militant Islamists have “completely surrounded” Maiduguri, noting that the military now needed to “fortify” the city, which has a population of more than two million, in order to prevent an assault “from all directions.” A statement issued by the Borno Elders Forum (BEF), which represents influential people in the state, including former government minsters and civil servants, has reported that Boko Haram militants have “annexed” areas that were about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Maiduguri. The BEF has also disclosed that they are “…convinced that the Federal Government of Nigeria has not shown sufficient political will to fight Boko Haram and rescue us from the clutches of the insurgents which may ultimately lead to the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Borno,” noting “the insurgents have rendered impassable almost all the roads leading to Maiduguri.”
Boko Haram appears to be carrying out a two-pronged assault, from the northeast to the southeast, with militants likely to be reinforcing the captured areas prior to taking over Maiduguri. Boko Haram was founded in Maiduguri in 2002, making the state capital a high value target for them. Boko Haram have seized territory along at least two of the main approaches to the capital city, while their control of towns and settlements to the south and near the border with Cameroon have effectively cut off the Nigerian military, preventing them from responding quickly and carrying out operations to recapture the area. In recent weeks, Boko Haram militants have destroyed several key bridges, including one on the road from Biu to Maiduguri, a bridge near Gamboru Ngala that links Nigeria to Cameroon, a bridge in Potiskum that links Maiduguri and Damaturu to Abuja and a bridge in Yobe that links to the southern areas of Borno and Adamawa. Some of the destroyed bridges were strategically linked to Maiduguri and have now made it difficult for the Nigerian military to reinforce Maiduguri and other towns in Borno state.
Further out, in Borno, Boko Haram are believed to have seized Gamboru Ngala, Dikwa, Gwoza and Marte. Bama has also been reported captured by the militants however the Nigerian military and some locals have contested these reports. Damboa, which was seized in July, has since been reported to have been retaken. In Adamawa state, Madagali has been captured while in Yobe, Buni Yadi has been taken. Other communities in the northeastern region of Nigeria, which are believed to have been seized or heavily contested, include Banki, Kerawa, Ashigashiy, Ngoshe, Pulka and Goniri. Further seizures of towns in the area, and which border Cameroon, cannot be ruled out at this time.
Despite Boko Haram’s recent takeover of a large area of Nigerian territory, actions similar to the recent lightning advance achieved by IS militants in Iraq, Nigeria’s military has continued to deny the severity of the threat. On Friday, Nigeria’s defence ministry dismissed “alarmist” reports pertaining to Maiduguri, stating, “Security Arrangements for the Defence of Maiduguri has been upgraded to handle any planned attack.” If Boko Haram are successful in taking over Maiduguri, he fall of the state capital will mean a significant symbolic and strategic victory for the militant group, effectively enabling them to control a major city and an international airport, a victory that has not yet been seen in the militant group’s five-year insurgency
In a new video made public on Sunday, Boko Haram’s leader has claimed to have created an Islamic caliphate in a northeastern Nigerian town that was seized by the militant group earlier this month. While the declaration is in line with the militant group’s desire of carving out an Islamic state in Nigeria, the timing of the announcement was likely prompted by the recent attention garnered by Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
In the new 52-minute video, Abubakar Shekau states “thanks be to Allah who gave victory to our brethren in the town of Gwoza and made it part of the Islamic caliphate,” adding that Gwoza, in Borno state, now has “nothing to do with Nigeria.” Earlier this month, the United Nations humanitarian office (OCHA) confirmed reports that Gwoza was under the control of the rebel group. While Boko Haram is now believed to be in control of other areas near Gwoza, in southern Borno, as well as large swathes of territory in northern Borno state and at least one town in neighboring Yobe state, mapping the precise areas that have fallen under the control of the Islamist militants will be nearly impossible as there are few humanitarian workers on the ground in the northeast, travel to the region remains dangerous and there is poor mobile phone coverage.
Links to IS
Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate in Nigeria has drawn comparisons with a similar declaration that was made by IS in June. While Boko Haram desires to create an Islamic state, it is believed that this premature declaration is a move to remain relevant in the region and in competition with IS.
Recent gains achieved by IS likely inspired Shekau’s statement, as the militant group has garnered international headlines in recent months by seizing parts of Iraq and Syria in a brutal onslaught. While global focus had initially been placed on Boko Haram’s widely condemned kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, in recent months, much of that focus has shifted to the territorial ambitions of IS despite Boko Haram continuing to carry out nearly daily attacks in northeastern Nigeria. Furthermore, in the wake of a video released last week depicting the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley, the United States has described IS as the strongest-ever Islamist threat with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology, a statement that has further taken attention away from the Nigerian-based militant group, which in comparison, is believed to be a modestly-funded uprising that is composed of poor youths with minimal tactical training. Although Boko Haram has carried out a brutal five-year campaign, by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, Shekau is likely attempting to remain relevant and to raise his own profile in the region, rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East.
While Shekau has on previous occasions expressed support for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, and has congratulated IS on its advances in Iraq and Syria, this new video shows no indication from Shekau that he was associating himself with Baghdadi. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the two groups have been working together. Instead, it is likely that the Nigerian militant’s latest video is an attempt at reminding regional governments and the West that Boko Haram is as powerful a threat as IS.
Boko Haram’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate is inline with the militant group’s ideology, as it has long voiced a desire to create a strict Islamic state within mainly Muslim northern Nigeria. The timing of the announcement however is directly influenced by IS’ activities. Boko Haram had previously declared that they should overrun the entire country prior to declaring an Islamic republic, a belief that was reflected in the manner in which they expanded their area of activity. In the wake of a state of emergency in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, coupled with the launch of a military offensive, Boko Haram had slowly moved out of the city centers, and into the rural areas of northeastern Nigeria. They have also successfully carried out attacks in Abuja this year and have crossed over the porous border into Cameroon. However in recent weeks, Boko Haram has taken over a number of towns in Borno state, a move that demonstrates a shift from hit-and-run tactics to an apparent holding strategy. It is likely that after watching IS’ gains in Iraq and Syria, and the impact this has had on the group’s global attention, Boko Haram’s plan of achieving its goal are now taking on a more gradual approach.
What remains evident is that Boko Haram is closely monitoring IS operations, its gains, what impact it has on the global stage and how the militant group may be able to benefit. Boko Haram is likely to continue to mirror IS moves in the coming months, continuing to take over areas of northeastern Nigeria and possibly releasing brutal videos similar to those released by IS.