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Boko Haram’s moderate streak and Nigeria’s Counter-Terrorism Conundrum

  • The death of Shekau, ascendancy of a-Barnawi and future of Nigeria’s Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Insurgency War

By Jacob Zenn, European Eye on Radicalization, September 2021


Throughout the “Boko Haram” movement’s history, there have been tensions between its more moderate and more extreme ideological streaks.

However, in May 2021, it appears the movement’s moderate streak finally won out, with the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi chasing down and forcing the self-inflicted death of Abubakar Shekau.

ISWAP is a more capable militant and ideological force than Shekau, whose faction’s key members have since defected to ISWAP itself.

The Nigerian government and army understandably view Shekau’s demise as a positive development, but the long-term battle against ISWAP may be even more difficult now that ISWAP monopolizes the jihadist insurgency.

This report summarizes the events leading to the ISWAP-Shekau confrontation, including the primary source audios and videos that each faction released during those events and discusses ways the Nigerian army and government may now confront ISWAP itself.

Concluding part of the Zenn’s report is as follows:

The “Boko Haram” movement, which refers to ISWAP, JASDJ, and Ansaru, has exhibited a contestation between more moderate and more extreme ideological streaks, with the latter embodied mostly by Shekau and Muhammed Ali before him.

Indeed, when Abu Musab al-Barnawi wrote a book condemning Shekau in 2018, he compared Shekau to Ali’s followers in 2003, who were then known as the “Nigerian Taliban.”

The more moderate streak, in contrast, has been embodied by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Ansaru before him, which makes it unsurprising that al-Barnawi noted in his book that some Ansaru members eventually defected to follow his leadership in ISWAP. Importantly, neither ideological streaks opposed jihad against the Nigerian government or loyalty to and identification with external, global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda or IS.

The main difference between the ideological streaks was whether ordinary Muslims who did not join the jihad, but also did not support the Nigerian government or military, should be killed. Shekau believed such ordinary Muslims were “infidels” and could be targeted for killing or abductions, while Abu Musab al-Barnawi believe the jihadists should seek to win such Muslims’ support and
avoid harming them.

This was not the only disagreement, however. Shekau also ordered hundreds of young girls, including some by coercion, to conduct suicide bombings, which IS opposed; released maniacal videos, including scratching his crotch, which Ansaru had mocked and IS disliked (this we know because inter alia it never allowed Shekau to be featured in any ISWAP videos); and hoarded supplies ranging from electricity generators, to food, to computer printers, which sub-commanders resented, especially when civilians were impoverished.

The contestation between moderate and extreme ideological streaks, and specifically between Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Shekau, finally culminated in the events of May 2021 and succeeding months. This involved IS ordering Abu Musab al-Barnawi to send ISWAP fighters into Shekau’s Sambisa base to kill Shekau and demand the loyalty of Shekau’s fighters be renewed to IS.

The first sign of al-Barnawi’s plans to attack Shekau occurred in May 2021 when al-Barnawi released an audio to his shura explaining that IS designated him as ISWAP’s new “caretaker” leader. Al-Barnawi had been named by IS as ISWAP leader in August 2016. However, in March 2019, ISWAP hardliners purged him and executed his ally, Mamman Nur, claiming IS ordered them to do so after Nur swindled money from IS and negotiated with the Nigerian government behind ISWAP’s back. Thus, in May 2021, IS, aware that al-Barnawi had been removed from power alongside Nur, reinstated al-Barnawi at least temporarily to the leadership position.

Addressed to “Muslims who in this area and our brothers and sisters that are mujahidin in the army of the Caliphate,” al-Barnawi stated in the audio that Shekau “rejected the method of prophet and that is why we left him, and created an [IS] province with [al-Barnawi] as wali (governor).” Al-Barnawi then noted his two successors as leaders were Ibn Umar and Abu Hafsa, who purged him (and Nur). However, al-Barnawi asserted this was not “according to the directives of the prophet and this is what we are trying to fix now” through accepting IS’s guidance to accept al-Barnawi as leader again.

Al-Barnawi further mentioned IS had ordered ISWAP that ghanima (spoils of war) “should be shared with all members of the province” and “not be sold in the province but given out freely.” Al-Barnawi, however, noted that ISWAP’s leaders, presumably Shekau and the leaders who purged him in March 2019, “cheated and performed an injustice to people” by “making followers of the province work
tirelessly while the leaders rested comfortably in their shelters.”

To redress this, al-Barnawi asserted “we will seek forgiveness.” It was a result of these leadership transgressions that al-Barnawi noted that IS had “dissolved the [ISWAP] waliship” and al-Barnawi himself would be anointed leader and ISWAP must “wait and see” until IS made a decision on any future leader.

This audio reflected how al-Barnawi embodied the moderate streak in ISWAP, while Shekau and those who purged al-Barnawi, Ibn Umar and Abu Hafsa, embodied the more extreme streak. At the time of this audio’s release, however, it was unknown that al-Barnawi’s resumption of leadership would coincide with ISWAP’s offensive against Shekau that led to Shekau’s death. This, in turn,
represented the ultimate victory of the relative moderates against the extremists like Shekau.

Shortly after this al-Barnawi shura audio surfaced, the Nigerian online publication Humangle, which is run by longtime Boko Haram insider journalist, Ahmed Salkida, reported on May 20 that Shekau self-detonated a suicide bomb just as ISWAP fighters surrounded him in Sambisa Forest during an offensive against Shekau’s bases.

Given that the Nigerian government had declared Shekau dead several times since 2009 only to see him resurface in videos mocking the government, there was skepticism about the Humangle report. However, a Shekau audio was leaked on May 22 in which he delivered a sermon indicating he knew he would soon die or be captured.

Shekau claimed ISWAP “deceived” his loyalists, which, based on Shekau’s videos in previous years, occurred through al-Barnawi’s cutting off Shekau’s communications with IS and, in Shekau’s view, relaying to ISWAP false proclamations from IS, including regarding IS’ siding with al-Barnawi’s theology on conducting jihad over Shekau’s. In addition, Shekau acknowledged that “since
this war began, many of our brothers have lost their lives, and many have sustained injuries” and that al-Barnawi’s loyalists have “defeated us.”

However, Shekau also asserted he would never be loyal to anybody, which was reflected by his ISWAP leadership term in which he defied IS orders and, for example, abducted Muslim and Christian women as slaves, which IS did not endorse. IS had only abducted as slaves Yezidis who, unlike Muslims and Christians, were not “People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab).”

Al-Barnawi responded in another June 21 audio addressed to “the one who calls himself imam Shekau” and Shekau’s followers in Sambisa, Lake Chad, and Zamafara and Niger states, where Shekau had declared JASDJ affiliates since 2019 through videos of fighters pledging loyalty to Shekau. In the audio, al-Barnawi called on Shekau’s followers to join ISWAP and “obey the Caliphate” because Shekau himself had never renounced his loyalty to IS.

He further asserted that Muslims living outside ISWAP-controlled territories were not “infidels” and even though most Muslims living in government-controlled areas were “apostates” who condoned elections, there were still good people among them. He further criticized Shekau for mass killings of Muslims, enslaving “apostate” Muslim women who, for example, received Western education, despite IS orders against this, and, argued Shekau was too soft on al-Qaeda by Shekau’s praising JASDJ’s
former al-Qaeda liaison. In contrast, al-Barnawi asserted al-Qaeda members were not “good Muslims” and ISWAP “opposed” both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Lastly, al-Barnawi detailed “Arab representatives” who visited ISWAP on IS’s behalf and the disputes with Shekau over communications to IS, which resulted in Shekau killing high-level ISWAP commanders in a way that al-Barnawi considered unacceptable. This audio was intended as a demonstration to Shekau’s loyalists after Shekau’s death that they had been wrongfully led by Shekau and should follow ISWAP’s path.

IS itself followed with a June 25 audio sermon from spokesperson, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, in which he now indirectly acknowledged Shekau’s fighters rejoined ISWAP and praised ISWAP’s implementing sharia in its territories, including through collecting zakat taxation. Further, a July 1 article in IS’ weekly al-Naba newsletter discussed the events leading to Shekau’s death. The article noted Shekau “deviated from the path of guidance and separated from the [Muslim] community” and described how ISWAP “searched for Shekau in the [Sambisa] forest, until they found him with a number of deputies on four vehicles” and “fierce clashes erupted between the two sides, which led to the killing and
wounding of some of his followers, while the rest of them fled in one of the vehicles.”

The article stated Shekau “took off on foot to once again hide in the forests,” but the “soldiers of the Caliphate tracked his steps and intensively searched for two days to find him on [May 19], with seven of his guards under a tall tree.” According to the article, Shekau was “asked to surrender and given an
hour of advice, recommendations, and warnings,” which led to “six of the [deputies’] surrendering, but [Shekau] and one of his escorts refused.”

Finally, “as the [ISWAP] mujahidin were talking to [Shekau] and calling on him to repent and surrender, he motioned for his escort to prepare his weapon,” but “the mujahidin noticed and shot him in the head, killing him. Shekau then detonated his explosive jacket, killing himself and “ending his story.”

After Shekau’s Death

After al-Barnawi released a shura audio on July 6 corroborating many of the details of the al-Naba article, on July 14, Shekau’s loyalists around Lake Chad led by one Bakura announced that Shekau was indeed dead, but they would not follow al-Barnawi. Rather, they considered themselves the legitimate IS province and requested IS to rule in their favor in their theological disputes with al-Barnawi. This, of course, did not happen.

On the contrary, on June 25, IS released a video of ISWAP embracing former Shekau loyalists in Sambisa who rejoined ISWAP while reaffirming their loyalty to IS, and al-Barnawi released an audio on the same day welcoming former Shekau loyalists to ISWAP and explaining ISWAP’s creed to them. Further confirming former Shekau loyalists joining ISWAP was IS’ July 23 video featuring them
celebrating Eid al-Adha in Sambisa. Indeed, Shekau’s longstanding Sambisa stronghold was now ISWAP’s.

Conclusion: Conundrums for the Nigerian Army

This report has shown that the “Boko Haram” movement has long exhibited tensions between more moderate and more extreme ideological streaks. However, it now appears the relative moderates have decisively won under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi and removed the “tumor” that al-Barnawi described as Shekau. This presents a conundrum for the Nigerian government and army,
however, for two main reasons.

First, ISWAP treats the civilian population, and especially ordinary Muslims, better than JASDJ did under Shekau. ISWAP, therefore, is more likely than JASDJ to win civilian support and govern its territories more effectively. This means the Nigerian army and government will have more difficulty convincing civilians to support them, especially when one way ISWAP’s violence is certain to be inflicted is toward any civilian who cooperates with the state.

Ironically, however, if the more brutal Shekau had withstood ISWAP’s incursions, then civilians would have continued to face harsher raids and retribution from JASDJ that would make their lives more difficult while sullying the reputation of the jihadists. However, this would have been “better” for the Nigerian army and government.

Second, ISWAP has consistently proven to be a more effective military force than JASDJ and has raided Nigerian military posts throughout northeastern Nigerian numerous times, often displaying such footage in videos released by IS’ centralized media apparatus. In addition, ISWAP’s roadside ambushes have prevented the army from reaching rural areas in northeastern Nigeria, and thereby has limited the amount of economic development initiatives the Borno State government has
been able to implement in such areas.

This means civilians in rural areas under ISWAP’s control or who are influenced by ISWAP are less likely to experience government efforts to improve their livelihoods. Again, therefore, JASDJ’s less
sophisticated military and governance capabilities compared to ISWAP would have “benefited” the Nigerian army and government, but at the same time civilians living near JASDJ brigades would have been less likely to be “served” by JASDJ.

Moving forward, the main challenge facing the Nigerian government and army is that they are confronting an ascendant ISWAP that has a strategy to win over the local population as part of its long-term governance agenda, while it also relentlessly attacks the army at its outposts and on the roadways. The army will need to withstand ISWAP’s military pressure, while the government will need
provide the population in and around ISWAP’s areas of operations with services and opportunities more effectively than ISWAP provides them.

The elimination of the “Boko Haram” extreme streak embodied by Shekau means the Nigerian government and army are dealing with a comparatively less brutal but militarily more capable foe. This foe is in some ways “better” for the civilian population, but also “worse” for the government and army because it makes their task of regaining sovereignty over all of Nigeria’s territory all the more demanding.

About the author:
Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor of the graduate-level course, “Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics”, at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and a senior fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC.

He conducted fieldwork in Borno State, Nigeria, and in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad to map Boko Haram’s organizational structure for the Swiss Embassy in Nigeria prior to the 2016 negotiations related to the Chibok Schoolgirls kidnapping.

His work on Boko Haram has featured in scholarly journals, such as Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Terrorism & Political Violence, Small Wars & Insurgencies, and the Journal of Modern African Studies.

Mr. Zenn is author of the book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, which was published in the spring of 2020 by Lynne Rienner Publishers in association with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews.

He is currently researching the diaspora Nigerian jihadists in Saudi Arabia who founded Boko Haram. He can be contacted:

This report first appeared in

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