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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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ISIS
  • 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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U.S.-Backed Syrian Democratic Forces Celebrate The Death Of Self-Declared “Caliphate”

“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

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Syria
Smoke rises from a strike on Baghuz, the last of the Islamic State group's holdouts in Syria, March 22, 2019. VOA

For consecutive nights, bombs rained down on the last scraps of Islamic State-held territory, lighting up the night sky over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz.

By Saturday morning, all that remained was a landscape littered with burned-out vehicles, abandoned campsites and other provisions the last of the terror group’s fighters and their families left behind.

On one of the few buildings that still stood, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag and celebrated the death of a self-declared caliphate that inflicted terror and death on the people it tried to rule.

“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all humanity,” SDF Director General Mazloum Kobani told officials and coalition partners at a ceremony to mark the long-awaited victory, using an acronym for the group.

FILE - Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.
Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.. VOA

“We announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baghuz region,” he said.

Yet in between the applause and the music of a marching band, SDF commanders and coalition officials paid tribute to the SDF forces, which paid for the victory in blood and treasure — an estimated 11,000 killed in the campaign to roll back IS, which at its height controlled nearly a third of Syria and almost as much of Iraq.

And even until the end, sometime Friday night into Saturday morning, IS put up a vicious defense, using suicide bombers and even children as human shields in an attempt to cling to one last scrap of land over which they could fly their black flag.

The fate of the last of the IS fighters, perhaps several hundred of the terror group’s most hardened and devoted followers, was not clear Saturday.

Observers on the ground said some appeared to have surrendered following the airstrikes that began Thursday night, targeting IS positions next to the Euphrates River and another sliver where IS fighters were backed up against a cliff overlooking the town.

By early Saturday, the airstrikes seemed to focus solely on the area by the cliff, where SDF and coalition officials said the IS fighters might have access to an extensive system of tunnels that helped to hide tens of thousands of people, the last of whom surrendered earlier in the week.

The first indications the fight against IS in Baghuz had ended came early Saturday, said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, using Twitter to announce the “total elimination of so-called caliphate.”

Only about 12 hours earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump made a similar declaration, telling reporters traveling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated.”

But Trump’s announcement was quickly rejected by U.S. defense officials and the SDF, who said fighting had not yet ended and more airstrikes were being called in.

On Saturday, Trump again hailed the victory over the terror group in Baghuz.

“ISIS’s loss of territory is further evidence of its false narrative, which tries to legitimize a record of savagery that includes brutal executions, the exploitation of children as soldiers, and the sexual abuse and murder of women and children,” he said in a statement.

“While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power,” he added. “They are losers and will always be losers.”

On Saturday, the SDF’s Kobani was careful to note that while IS’s caliphate had finally been brought down, the danger was far from over, with numerous IS “sleeper cells, which continue to present a great danger in our region and the wider world.”

Top U.S. defense and intelligence officials repeatedly have warned that the terror group had long been planning for the demise of its caliphate, and that a clandestine insurgency already had taken root.

“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in a statement. “We will continue our work with the Global Coalition to deny ISIS safe haven anywhere in the world.”

One senior defense official warned IS still has, at minimum, “tens of thousands” of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq, and that much of the group’s senior leadership, including self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large.

FILE - Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019.
Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019. VOA

There also are concerns that IS has thousands more supporters and sympathizers — including upward of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month.

So, too, there are concerns about more than 1,000 foreign fighters being held by the SDF, which has asked repeatedly that they be taken back and prosecuted by their home countries.

“These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who … are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion.”

Speaking Saturday at the victory ceremony near Baghuz, the U.S. adviser to the coalition pledged Washington would not abandon the SDF or its other partners, even though Trump has said most of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will be leaving.

“We will continue to support the coalition’s operations in Syria to ensure this enduring defeat,” William Robak said. “We will do what is necessary in the region, including here in Syria and across the globe, to ensure the defeat of this threat.”

France and Britain also reaffirmed their commitment, though disagreements with the U.S. over the next steps remain.

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“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

“We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people, our allies and partners from the threat Daesh poses,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, using an alternate acronym for IS. (VOA)