Who’s running Boko Haram these days?

The answer? It depends!

Abubakar Shekau, who may now be out of a job, but who knows?

Something weird is happening to the ISIS affiliate that’s even more destructive than the parent company, Boko Haram (or, as it official calls itself, The Islamic State’s West Africa Province). A couple of days ago, said parent company announced that its Boko Haram operations were being taken over by a new regional manager:

Isis announced on Tuesday that the group that has ravaged northern Nigeria for the past seven years had a new leader – Abu Musab al-Barnawi. An Isis magazine carried an interview with him and said he was previously a Boko Haram spokesman.

This news came as kind of a shock to many observers, but I’m willing to be that nobody was as shocked as, well, Boko Haram’s old and/or current boss, Abubakar Shekau. As you do when you’re being forced out as the head of the world’s most bloodthirsty terrorist organization/organized crime outfit, Shekau took to YouTube to let everybody know that he’s not going anywhere, and that it’s not him, it’s ISIS. Or something:

In the 10-minute recording uploaded to YouTube Wednesday night, the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, referred to what appeared to be a split in Boko Haram over whether Muslims who live among nonbelievers are good Muslims whose lives deserve to be spared.

Several analysts said they were confident the recording was of Mr. Shekau’s voice.

The recording emerged hours after an Islamic State publication distributed on the internet referred to another Boko Haram figure, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, as “governor” of the group. Mr. al-Barnawi was formerly thought to be merely a spokesman. The new title suggested that perhaps he was running Boko Haram now.

The article caught the attention of Mr. Shekau, who had not been heard from in months and presumably rushed to broadcast his response. “My brothers in Allah,” he began, directly addressing Islamic State leaders. “I received a message that you sent regarding placing a new governor.”

Taken together, the Islamic State publication and Mr. Shekau’s recording suggest he is leading a Boko Haram faction bent on indiscriminate killing, while Mr. Barnawi is leading a group that might be more willing to show mercy to Muslims.

Let’s marinate in that for a second. ISIS is trying to force Shekau out as the leader of Boko Haram because he’s been too indiscriminately violent for their taste. Too indiscriminately violent for ISIS. That’s a hell of a thing to put on your LinkedIn page. Shekau has been responsible for attacks that have targeted Nigerian Muslims, and while ISIS clearly has no problem killing Muslims, it seems that Shekau has gone even too far for them. Shekau’s attacks against the Muslims Boko Haram is supposed to be rallying to their cause presumably raised red flags back in Raqqa, and there have also been reports that Shekau has been executing subordinates who question these actions. It may have been one of his remaining subordinates who reported him up the chain of command and thus got him axed.

It’s not particularly surprising that something like this would happen; once you begin to implement takfir, the belief that “true” Muslims have the right to judge other Muslims to be non-believers and therefore eligible for death, as both ISIS and Boko Haram have, it’s almost inevitable that people are going to disagree about who should be defined as kafir and who should be considered a good Muslim. It could make for a lively theological debate if it weren’t for the fact that the practice of takfir always involves killing people for their perceived inadequacies. Obviously it’s too soon to know what the fallout here is going to be, but a splintering of the organization would be the likeliest outcome. It really remains to be seen how many Boko Haram fighters stick with Shekau, even though it’s apparently becoming more and more dangerous to be around him.

If I may, as it’s been a while since we talked Nigeria around here, things haven’t been going well for Boko Haram in general lately. After a pretty mediocre start, Nigeria’s stepped-up military campaign against the group under President Muhammadu Buhari has made substantial gains in terms of rolling back its territorial acquisitions. For a time, as is the case right now with ISIS, the worse things got for Boko Haram militarily, the more it turned to terrorism, and the more it spread that terrorism to neighboring countries like Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. But attacking outside of Nigeria seems to have backfired, as it brought those neighboring countries into the anti-Boko Haram fight and thereby increased the pressure on the group. Recently even Boko Haram’s terrorist activity seems to have diminished both in frequency and in death toll, as it’s been forced to strike softer targets in less populated areas. Which is not to say that the group can’t still cause considerable human suffering. And if Boko Haram does splinter over the leadership question, that may well cause a short-term spike in terrorist activity as the now-competing factions jockey for position.

It’s gotten to the point where some analysts have wondered whether Boko Haram might repudiate its link to ISIS, which clearly hasn’t done much to bolster Boko Haram’s fortunes, and try to rebuild ties with al-Qaeda affiliates like AQIM and al-Shabaab, who were far more helpful to Boko Haram during its last dry spell in 2009-2010 than ISIS has been lately. Shekau might attempt something like this now, though if he’s become too indiscriminately violent for ISIS then it’s unlikely that he’ll find a receptive new home with the comparatively more discriminate al-Qaeda.

Still, the underlying problems on which Boko Haram feeds are still there:

Structural challenges make it hard to root out Boko Haram: massive, oil income-fed corruption; chronic bureaucratic mismanagement; growing pressure on natural resources; deepening poverty since the 1990s; northern Muslim elite manipulation of religious sentiment; a history of violence; and the fundamental dysfunction of Nigeria’s federal structure.

A new study of ex-Boko Haram fighters’ attitudes notes that “about half of former members said their communities at some time generally supported Boko Haram, believing it would help bring about a change in government”. Moreover, there are still many troubling reports by human rights NGOs. A culture of impunity remains too often unchallenged and counter-insurgency often remains too crudely oblivious of the rule of law.

Some of those same problems have led to a blast from Nigeria’s past, as it were: the resurgence of insurgency and terrorism in the country’s southeastern Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta, along with really all of southeastern Nigeria, has been a hotbed of separatism and anger against the Nigerian government virtually since Nigeria became independent in 1960–there was a “Niger Delta Republic” that was briefly a thing in the 1960s, and the “Republic of Biafra,” a self-declared independent state whose 1967-1970 existence caused the Nigerian Civil War, controlled part of the delta for a time. Part of the issue is that Nigeria, like lots of other former European colonies that were granted independence after World War II, was drawn up with little regard for ethnic or cultural considerations, and so there’s really not all that much holding it together as a nation. But one problem in particular has to do with oil, specifically the fact that most of Nigeria’s oil is in southeastern Nigeria (around the delta), and yet the people of that region have always seen most of that wealth siphoned off to other parts of the country (particularly to predominantly Muslim regions in the north, which rankles the mostly Christian peoples in the delta).

Those same grievances have only been exacerbated over the past 4-5 decades, as not only have people living in the delta seen little economic benefit from all the oil they’re sitting on (people in the delta are among the poorest in all of Nigeria), but they’ve now also had to suffer from decades of environmental devastation due to the fact that Nigeria’s oil industry, brought to you by Shell Oil, is maybe the dirtiest oil operation on the planet. So when a new group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) declared its existence this past March and carried out a series of highly effective attacks on Nigeria’s oil infrastructure…well, look, I’m not saying anything justifies terrorism, but I’m also not saying that these folks don’t have a point.

The NDA claim to be fighting to secure a greater share of the country’s oil wealth for the people of the delta, as well as to get all that accumulated environmental damage cleaned up (a clean-up program has finally begun, but it’s going to take decades and that’s assuming it continues to get the funding it will require). On the other hand, the extent to which the NDA’s leaders actually care about alleviating poverty or cleaning up the environment in the delta, as opposed to lining their own pockets, is questionable. As I say, militancy in the Niger Delta is a recurring problem for Nigeria, and each cycle ends with promises of payouts to the leaders of whatever group is behind the violence. Then those promises are only half-filled or get hoarded by the top insurgent commanders, many militants don’t get the payout they were expecting, and the next round of violence begins.

The NDA has probably eclipsed Boko Haram as Nigeria’s top internal security problem if for no other reason than that it can directly threaten the oil industry in ways that Boko Haram simply can’t, due to geography. So it comes as no surprise that while Boko Haram has been hashing out its internal differences this week, Buhari’s government has announced a resumption of payments to insurgents in the delta that he’d previously attempted to cut (the fact that it was Buhari, a newly elected Muslim president, trying to cut their payouts probably helped inflame the Christian delta fighters’ anger). This pattern of violence followed by payouts undoubtedly creates a perverse incentive for militants living in the Niger Delta to make noise every few years in order to secure more payouts, but there’s only so much Nigeria can do to defeat these groups militarily, especially at a time when it’s also trying to finally tamp down the threat from Boko Haram in the north.



4 thoughts on “Who’s running Boko Haram these days?

  1. “… back in Raqqa”
    Ha! Who would have ever thought we’d talk about Raqqa in the same way we mention other policital capitals like Washington or Beijing.

    Good article as always.. at least with delta oil militants, even if the violence is cyclical, at least it has a script people stick to. The devil we know, etc..

  2. Biafra was very different from the Delta separatist movements. Biafra’s power base was properly eastern Nigeria, the heartland of the Igbo ethnic group. The Nigerian Civil War was mostly an Igbo vs Hausa power struggle writ large. Biafra *technically* had the Delta region, but they didn’t hold onto it for very long.

    There was actually a failed “Niger Delta Republic” secession the year before Biafra’s secession. It’s leader, Isaac Adaka Boro, would later be pardoned and fought *against* Biafra for the Nigerian federal forces.


    1. Love the War Nerd. West African al-Qaeda is definitely a mess of tiny localized splinter groups that have only a tenuous at best connection with the mother ship, such as it is (and if it wasn’t much in 2013, it’s less than even that now). AQIM has been kind of a hub for incubating these things, but then most of them have formed when some commander like Mokhtar Belmokhtar has decided he’s done following AQIM’s orders and has gone off on his own.

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