Making sense of Boko Haram’s different factions: Who, how and why?
Posted on September 20, 2016
by Jacob Zenn <http://africanarguments.org/author/jacob-zenn/>
*How do Boko Haram’s separate factions differ in term of operations and
[image: Taken from a Boko Haram video in 2014.]
Abubakar Shekau stands at the centre of a Boko Haram video from 2014.
The Islamist militant group *Jamaat Ahlis Sunna liDawatti wal Jihad* –
known as “Boko Haram” – has never been a monolithic organisation. It has
always been made up of several factions, and recently these divisions may
have become sharper.
The clearest rift is between Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
Shekau became Boko Haram’s leader back at the time of the launch of the
insurgency in 2009 and is still its most recognisable figure both within
and outside Nigeria. However, on 3 August this year, Islamic State (IS) –
to which Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2015, becoming its “West Africa
Province” – announced the insurgency had a new leader in al-Barnawi.
Just hours after this announcement, Shekau issued an audio
claiming he was still in charge, but was reverting to his former title as
“imam”. A few days later on 7 August, Shekau then accused al-Barnawi of
“manipulating” IS into replacing him. In the video
he also claimed IS leader Abubakar al-Baghdadi had yet to respond to his
accusation that al-Barnawi was guilty of “great polytheism” and of not
being “authentically salafist”.
Al-Barnawi, who controls the communication between West Africa Province and
IS, was likely blocking Shekau’s previous messages to al-Baghdadi. Shekau’s
releases were therefore likely his way of circumventing al-Barnawi to speak
to both IS and the Nigerian government more directly.
[*What led IS to announce a new Boko Haram leader? Here are two clues from
Al-Barnawi and Shekau are thus the two main rival figureheads, but they do
not represent the only factions at play. Mamman Nur
leads another group that is allied to al-Barnawi but not part of IS. Ansaru
<http://ansarulmuslimun.wapka.mobi/index.xhtml>, another splinter group, is
currently quiet but still active according to Nigerian army reports.
Meanwhile, some other cells are reportedly emerging in unexpected parts of
Nigeria such as Kogi <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogi_prison_break>.
Why have these different factions emerged and how do they differ in terms
of operations and ideology?
*West Africa Province under Abu Musab Al-Barnawi*
Al-Barnawi is the son of Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder. Like his
father, he is less extreme than Shekau in his interpretation of who it is
acceptable to kill. Al-Barnawi argues for the targeting of churches to
prevent the “Christianisation” of Muslim lands, as does Shekau. But unlike
Shekau, al-Barnawi would leave alone Muslims who do not actively oppose the
Al-Barnawi also emphasises asymmetric attacks on military targets (as
opposed to civilians) and has an operational focus that includes all of the
Lack Chad countries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. He was likely
responsible for West Africa Province’s raids
on military barracks in Niger starting in May 2016. Al-Barnawi has more
fighters than Mamman Nur, including former members of Ansaru and others who
have trained in Mali or elsewhere in the Sahel.
In terms of personal style, al-Barnawi has appeared in West Africa Province
albeit with a veil, and has managed the group’s social media accounts. He
is thus media savvy but, unlike Shekau, he is not bombastic and does not
expose himself to convey his messages.
Al-Barnawi is similar to Nur in terms of beliefs, and both are closer to
al-Qaeda in ideology than IS. The apparent contradiction of him being part
of IS can be explained by his vision, shared by his father, of an Islamic
State in West Africa. This ambition cannot be reached under al-Qaeda’s
“gradual” and “emirate-based” approach, but can under IS. Like other
marginal al-Qaeda factions and allies in northwest Africa that switched
to IS around 2014-15, al-Barnawi seems to have prioritised IS’s “immediate
[*Boko Haram, Islamic State, and the underlying concerns for West Africa
However, at the same time, al-Barnawi may have a latent attachment to
al-Qaeda. He probably appreciates that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM) harboured and trained his father’s supporters after his father’s
death in 2009 and that AQIM’s leader praised
<http://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=11556> his father’s “martyrdom”.
AQIM’s efforts in Nigeria were also later extended into Nigeria via the
splinter group Ansaru, which carried out AQIM-like kidnappings of foreigners
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM1dWpxlNcw> in Nigeria and Cameroon and
served as an ideological counter to Shekau’s targeting of Nigerian Muslims.
On this front, it is notable that al-Barnawi did not allow West Africa
Province to engage in anti-al-Qaeda propaganda while in charge of its
communications, unlike other IS provinces. It is therefore possible he will
rejoin al-Qaeda if the IS caliphate is decimated in Syria, Iraq and Libya,
and al-Qaeda’s model proves successful in places such as Syria (with the
rebranded *Jabhat al-Nusra*) and Afghanistan (with the Taliban).
An alternate possibility is that al-Qaeda is already in communication with
al-Barnawi and covertly coordinating
his efforts to depose Shekau and divide and weaken West Africa Province to
facilitate an eventual realignment with al-Qaeda.
*Boko Haram under Abubakar Shekau*
As a leader, Shekau has adopted a territorial-based approach to the
insurgency, with a focus on Borno and neighbouring states in north-east
Nigeria. He has more fighters than either al-Barnawi or Nur, especially
from the Kanuri ethnic group around Lake Chad, who almost exclusively form
his inner circle.
Despite leaving IS organisationally and returning to his original pre-IS
leadership position as “imam”, Shekau has retained his pledge to
al-Baghdadi. He may believe that IS did not abandon him so much as
al-Barnawi “manipulated” IS leadership into replacing him.
At the same time, the Nigerian army claims once again that Shekau is dead
<http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/09/shekau-dead-insists-army/>, which, if
true, would mean that his fighters are up for grabs either to the new
leadership or to competing IS and al-Qaeda-aligned elements in Nigeria.
Boko Haram however issued a video
on 15 September saying Shekau is still their “imam”, countering the army’s
Shekau is ideologically similar to IS, so their relationship appears
natural. He may therefore be hoping that by reaching out to al-Baghdadi in
recent Boko Haram Youtube videos, IS will reconsider its decision to drop
him. However, at the moment, IS is likely too preoccupied evacuating
from Sirte, Libya, to focus on dealing with Shekau.
It is also notable that IS leaders such as Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, who
Shekau’s pledge in 2015, and North African IS media members who wrote
of their passion for Shekau are now dead. Shekau may therefore have few
supporters in IS ranks to argue for his reinstatement over al-Barnawi.
While Shekau may feel the need to reach out to al-Qaeda to acquire
resources (or to negotiate for the Chibok schoolgirls and release new
ransom videos <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utzTu_Ntpng> of them), AQIM
is likely more interested in al-Barnawi (or Nur) than Shekau. Shekau is
therefore most likely to remain independent in the near future, which could
mean that there will be no limits to a more indiscriminate killing
campaign. This could garner Shekau greater attention as compensation for
on-the-ground losses and resource deficiencies.
*Mamman Nur’s faction*
Nur does not belong to a defined group, but is able to being together
operatives from diverse factions for big operations as exemplified by the UN
attack in 2011
which involved elements of Boko Haram, Ansaru, AQIM, and fighters returning
from al-Shabaab in Somalia.
As Nigerian and Senegalese fighters who were in Sirte – the Libyan city IS
recently lost control of – now move
into Niger and other parts of the Sahel, Nur seems most qualified to manage
Nur prefers large-scale attacks on international targets, including
churches. He was likely responsible for the introduction of suicide bombings
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_2012_Kaduna_bombings> en masse into
Nigeria’s Middle Belt region in 2012 and 2013, although as he seems
indifferent to propaganda, letting Shekau claim many of those attacks.
Despite Nur’s reclusiveness, he surfaced in a private audio that was
recorded before the Shekau/al-Barnawi leadership feud became public, but
after 3 August. In the recording, he accuses Shekau of hoarding weapons for
his own faction, killing fighters from other factions, and carrying out
sharia punishments on civilians for minor infractions and without evidence.
As a former loyal colleague of al-Barnawi’s late father, Nur may serve as a
mentor figure to al-Barnawi. And even though Nur is now loyal to IS, his
history is also closely associated with al-Qaeda. If Nur realigns with
al-Qaeda, he could try to integrate IS foreign fighters, especially those
from Libya, into AQIM and create a more diversified regional threat than
AQIM’s previous Mali-concentrated insurgency. This would extend AQIM’s
capabilities even beyond the terrorist attacks in Bamako, Ougadougou and
Abidjan since 2015. Nonetheless, pro-IS militants
on the Mali-Burkina Faso border are also competing for these fighters.
[*United and credible: Côte d’Ivoire’s response to the Grand Bassam attacks
In this context, it is also important to consider the role of Ansaru, which
appears to be sending fighters to Libya. In both February
2016, the Nigerian army reported the arrests of Ansaru members involved in
Moreover, given Ansaru’s connection to Kogi State, where it carried out an
on Mali-bound Nigerian troops in 2012 and where Ansaru commander Khalid
al-Barnawi was arrested <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35956301> in
April 2016, Nur could have a role to play in the development of the radical
in that part of Nigeria.
These cells could be the next generation of militancy in Nigeria and play a
role in bringing the insurgency southwards to the Middle Belt once again.
Thus, Nur’s future affiliation – whether with al-Qaeda or IS – will likely
have a significant impact on the affiliations, ideology, and tactics of the
insurgency in the years to come.
*Jacob Zenn is a Fellow of African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown
Foundation, and frequently works on issues related to the insurgency in
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