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Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists: Is ISIS trying to reshuffle the group with a new leader?

The Islamic State accepted Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance in 2015, but there is a debate regarding the coordination of military strategy between the two groups

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  • In its weekly online publication, the Islamic State militant group named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as its “governor” of Boko Haram
  • Clash over leadership is an attempt by Islamic State to reshuffle Boko Haram’s authority, hence raise its profile
  • Boko Haram has lost most of the territory it once held, although it still carries out attacks in northeast Nigeria and across nearby borders

Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group based in northeastern Nigeria recently took over social media site Youtube to reveal the crack in their organization. Officials believe this outbreak in the leadership is a sign of their weakness and defeat.

This week saw dueling statements from two men who both claim to be the leader of Nigerian militant sect Boko Haram. The apparent leadership struggle has sparked concerns of an ideological split that could lead to a surge in violence in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.

In its weekly online publication, the Islamic State militant group named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as its “governor” of Boko Haram.

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The article didn’t say so explicitly, but the implication was that al-Barnawi had replaced Abubakar Shekau, the bombastic preacher who has led the group since 2009.

Al-Barnawi has also reportedly released an audio statement attacking Shekau, according to the regional news service Sahara Reporters.

File photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, shows their leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera. Image source:VOA
File photo taken from video by Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorist network, shows their leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera. Image source:VOA

Shekau re-asserts authority

A man claiming to be Shekau responded to this so-called attempted coup with a 10-minute audio statement of his own, briefly posted on YouTube before it was taken down. In the statement, Shekau reasserted his authority over Boko Haram and said that al-Barnawi, a long-time member of the group, is trying to stir up conflict.

“Of course, he’s so confused and it’s a sign, he [Shekau] was showing sign of weakness. I think it’s a sign of the end of the whole saga — that is one – two, it’s a sign of a defeat also,” said Khalid Aliyu, an official of the umbrella body of Islamic organizations in Nigeria, Jama’atu Nasril Islam.

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“It’s also a sign of loss of power and control of the insurgency itself, therefore it shows a crack in the organization of the insurgency,” he added.

He says Boko Haram has been overpowered by the army. In fact, Boko Haram has lost most of the territory it once held, although it still carries out attacks in northeast Nigeria and across nearby borders.

A soldier walks through the burnt building at the headquarters of Michika local government in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state, May 10, 2015. Image source:VOA
A soldier walks through the burnt building at the headquarters of Michika local government in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state, May 10, 2015.
Image source:VOA

Power struggle

Aliyu speculates that this may be why the Islamic State is shifting the power away from Shekau in an attempt to raise the profile of Boko Haram again; but, there are fears that the power struggle between al-Barnawi and Shekau could lead to a spike in violence.

“There will be clash over leadership if it is true that Barnawi is the new leader and Shekau is saying I am still the authority, you know. There will be clashes. They will be fighting each other,” said Bulus Mungopark, a member of a Nigerian vigilante group. These groups have been key allies of the Nigerian military, helping to monitor and fight Boko Haram units.

Mungopark says he battled Boko Haram in his hometown of Chibok, where Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls in 2014.

Al-Barnawi is said, by some, to be the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody in 2009; but, that’s up for debate. Mungopark says he remembers Yusuf very well.

“I know Mohammed Yusuf. Very well. And I know his age. So he could not have a son up to the age,” Mungopark said.

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What is also up for debate is the actual level of cooperation between the Islamic State and Boko Haram. The Islamic State accepted Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance last year, in 2015, but many security analysts say there does not seem to be a coordination of military strategy between the two groups.

“From the beginning when Boko Haram pledged their allegiance to IS, I think both Boko Haram and IS, each one of them is looking for recognition, would want to have more followers,” said professor Muktar Bunza, a Nigerian historian who has followed Boko Haram.

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Still, an attempt by Islamic State to reshuffle Boko Haram’s leadership could point to deepening operational ties to come. (VOA)

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Emergence of Radical Political Groups Raises Concern in Pakistan

Concerns are being voiced about how a few radical groups with proven terror ties have been allowed to re-brand themselves as political parties.

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Rising concerns in Pakistan regarding radical terrorist groups establishing themselves as political parties. VOA
Rising concerns in Pakistan regarding radical terrorist groups establishing themselves as political parties. VOA
  • Tension in Pakistan increasing due to emergence of Radical Political Groups.
  • Extremist groups are gaining a footing in Country’s politics.
  • According to reports, goverment’s efforts are not enough to stop the emerging radicalism in Pakistan.

Concerns are being voiced in Pakistan about how a few radical groups with proven terror ties have been allowed to re-brand themselves as political parties.

Taj Haider, one of the prominent and founding members of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has been in power five times since 1970, told VOA the country is again seeing the trend of extremist groups camouflaging themselves to enter into politics.

“Religion and politics cannot go hand in hand, but unfortunately this is our new reality. We have seen the recent by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar where militant-turned-political parties were able to mobilize people and gather votes,” Haider said. “And these so-called new political parties, with proven terror records, look determined to contest the upcoming elections in 2018.”

In a recent high-level party meeting presided by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Pakistan’s slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the government was sharply criticized on its inability to forcefully implement the National Action Plan and bar proscribed groups from entering the political sphere.

The National Action Plan is a 20-point strategy devised to combat extremism in 2015 that clearly states no banned groups can operate in the country by changing their names or identity.

Analysts say many other political parties are also agitated and wary about the recent political dynamic that has allowed radicalized groups to enter the political arena.

“The government has repeatedly said it will not allow the hardliners to enter into politics, but the reality is different, these parties are going into masses,” Rasul Baksh Raees, a prominent analyst from Pakistan told VOA.

“As long as these proscribed groups stick to their extreme ideologies and violence, they will be a danger to the society and democracy itself.”

Hafiz Saeed
Hafiz Saeed, head of the Pakistani religious party. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

PPP’s acute criticism came as Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), inaugurated the office of his newly launched political party Milli Muslim League (MML) in the eastern city of Lahore.

Pakistan’s Election Commission rejected MML’s party registration application in October, citing its link to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a U.S. designated terror-sponsoring organization.

But MML looks determined to contest the upcoming state and provincial elections. The party has several offices, has launched a website, and has a social media team spreading its messages through Facebook and Twitter.

Pakistan’s government has repeatedly emphasized it will not tolerate any political party with a proven record of promoting violence and terrorism to use democracy and political means to spread their extreme ideologies.

But critics still say the government is not doing enough to stop radical groups from entering politics.

“Look what happened in Lahore’s recent by-election and who can forget the power show by extremists on the roads of Islamabad. The government was totally helpless,” Raees said.

During the Lahore election in September, a MML backed independent candidate secured the fourth position in the race. The by-election was also contested by Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TeL), another extremist religious party created to carry-on Mumtaz Qadri’s mission, the bodyguard who killed Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 after he had demanded reforms in the controversial blasphemy law. Mumtaz Qadri was later sentenced to death.

Islamic Extremists
Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik party (VOA)

In November, thousands of followers of the Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labaik blocked Islamabad roads for weeks and demanded the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, after accusing him of blasphemy. The government eventually surrendered to hardliners’ demands after Pakistan’s military played the role of mediator.

The experts say the emerging trend of politicizing militancy is a danger to democracy. They also point out the sectarian and hardline rationale will further complicate the situation in the country that has been trying to combat terrorism for more than a decade.

“Imagine when these hardliners, through political parties, will spread their extreme views on the grassroots level. What will be the future of this country?” Raees said.

But some politicians dismiss the blending of radicalized groups into politics. Haider believes the people of Pakistan can differentiate between politicians and extremists and will not allow militant-turned-politicians to thrive.

“If you look at the past, the religious parties including the Jamaat-i-Islami [an old religious party], despite having a huge following, were never able to clean sweep or get majority in the electoral process of the country,” said Haider.

“Even now, with all these efforts, I believe Milli Muslim League or Tehreek-e-Labaik will not be able to pull large numbers during the general elections. Religious or sectarian votes are scattered in the country and can’t be unified and will not help these newly established political parties to win a prominent number of seats.” VOA