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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

  • 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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