0419 GMT November 19, 2019
A reference in a newly released Islamic State publication mentions an apparent new title for a key member of Boko Haram, raising questions about its leadership and future after a major Nigerian military offensive.
The report in the 41st edition of the Islamic State’s Al-Naba magazine, published on Tuesday, carried an interview with a man it called Boko Haram’s “governor” for West Africa, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors militant jihadist media.
The reference appears to indicate a promotion for Mr. al-Barnawi, who had been cited in a January 2015 video as a Boko Haram spokesman. The report made no mention of the status of Abubakar Shekau, who had been thought to be the leader of Boko Haram. It said Mr. al-Barnawi did not condone attacks on mosques and markets frequented by Muslims — a hallmark tactic of the organization.
The report from the Islamic State led to a new round of speculation about the hierarchy and status of Boko Haram, which for the past year has been on the run from intensive strikes by the Nigerian military.
Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State last spring, about the same time the military ramped up its push. While it is unclear what kind of support the Islamic State has been giving Boko Haram, American military officials have said the two groups have started collaborating more closely.
The interview was a question-and-answer with Mr. al-Barnawi, who decried the spread of Christianity in Nigeria and talked of “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the Cross,” according to SITE’s translation of the report.
He also complained that the news media had assigned the name Boko Haram to the group because it could not pronounce its real name: Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah Lil Dawa Wal Jihad.
Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group operating largely in northeast Nigeria, has killed thousands of people, sometimes deploying young boys and girls as suicide bombers to attack markets, mosques and even camps for those seeking protection from the group’s fighters. Boko Haram began about 14 years ago as part of a movement against Western education that quickly spiraled into a yearslong murderous rampage that has spread across the nation’s borders.
The military offensive against Boko Haram has been largely successful, driving fighters deep into the forest and securing villages that Boko Haram once held. In recent months fighters have been stealing cattle and food, an indication that they are scrambling for basics to survive. Military officials say many captured militants are scrawny and malnourished.
Some analysts say the report published on Tuesday might indicate that Boko Haram, under pressure for resources, is turning to the Islamic State for more help.
“Has this resource pressure created more of an opening for the Islamic State to a gain stronger foothold and influence?” asked Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a research institute in London. “That is a very, very open question. If anything, what this opens up is questions about the next stage of Boko Haram’s evolution.”
Despite the Nigerian military’s victories, Boko Haram elements have continued to launch numerous suicide bombings and in some areas have retaken villages liberated by soldiers. Recent attacks have become increasingly brazen. Last week, fighters ambushed a United Nations convoy injuring workers on their way from distributing aid outside the northeastern city of Maiduguri. In June fighters attacked a military unit in Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbor, killing 32 soldiers.
The report on Tuesday from the Islamic State publication also raised questions about the fate of Mr. Shekau, known as Boko Haram’s leader since the 2009 death of the militant group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Some analysts have speculated that Mr. Shekau may be dead. Others think he has been marginalized, or is perhaps leading a core group of fighters while others have split off.
“Abu Musab al-Barnawi is now the ‘wali,’ or leader, and Shekau is not,” said Jacob Zenn, an African affairs fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research organization. “But Shekau likely would not accept a demotion, so I imagine in order to get him demoted they had to eliminate him.”
In June, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate at his confirmation hearing that the Islamic State had disavowed Mr. Shekau because of his tactics, which are extreme even by the Islamic State’s standards.
“For example, he uses children as suicide bombers, he attacks other Muslims, and he’s been told by ISIL to stop doing that, but he has not done so,” General Waldhauser said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.
He told the committee that half of Boko Haram’s members had broken off “because they were not happy with the amount of buy-in, if you will, from Boko Haram into the ISIL brand.”
During the hearing, the general indicated that the Islamic State was trying to reconcile the two groups but that Mr. Shekau had “not really fallen into line with what ISIL would like him to do.”
Some security analysts think Mr. al-Barnawi is the leader of the group of Boko Haram fighters who have split from Mr. Shekau over disputes about attacking mosques.
The report from the Islamic State publication quoted Mr. al-Barnawi as saying Boko Haram does not endorse indiscriminate attacks on marketplaces and mosques.
Such restraint aligns with Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group that was active about four years ago but has been largely quiet in recent years.