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Nigeria: Shekau Vs Barnawi - the Battle for Boko Haram's Soul

By Hamza Idris

September 12, 2016

Recently, some suspected Boko Haram assailants stormed Tumur, a sleepy community along the Nigerian border with Niger Republic and slit the throats of 10 people, who the locals called "associate Boko Haram members."

It was gathered that the insurgents had crossed to the Nigerien community from villages around Malam Fatori in Abadam Local Government Area of Borno State. The 10 were victims of an emerging ideological split and brutal supremacy battle between the hardhearted leader of the Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, and the new point-man of the Islamic State in West Africa-backed faction of the group, Abu Musab Al-Barnawi.

In the first week of August, this year, the ISIS put to an end, the seven years of ruthless reign of Shekau, and in his place, anointed Al-Barnawi, the son of the late Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of the Nigeria-based Boko Haram, which recognised and paid allegiance to ISIS's proclaimed caliphate under Abubakar Al-Baghdadi, in March, 2015.

The confirmation that Shekau had been dethroned came from the dreaded sect leader himself, in an audio message he released on August 4, which was the first in so many months, where he described the breakaway leader as heretic. Soon after the new development, sporadic fighting broke out between the two factions, one headed by Shekau and the other by Al-Barnawi.

The rivalry, analysts claim, would break the spine of the Boko Haram group, which was ranked the most deadly terrorist organisation on earth by the Global Terrorism Index in 2015. The sect, according to the report, was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared to ISIS's 6,073.

The Nigerian military has dismissed the reported division within the ranks of the insurgents as a "drama" being staged by the group to remain afloat and vowed to crush terrorist threats under whatever guise.

"When the terrorists besieged Tumur, they told the locals, who were mostly Nigerians taking refuge there not to panic, but warned that so and so persons must be produced to face the wrath of their betrayal," Ahmed Khalid, a resident of Abadam, who is now taking refuge in Maiduguri, said of the first reported intra-group rivalry killing.

However, there are two different versions to the narrative as to why only 10 people were brought out and killed in Tumur, even when the Boko Haram invaders had all the opportunity to butcher everybody in the village in the dead of night.

"From my findings, the 10 were supplying foodstuff to the insurgents who lived in cluster of camps along the Nigerian border with Niger. But they suddenly stopped the supplies, leaving the terrorists in hunger and deprivation in the midst of constant offensive by the Nigerian security forces. This was why they were trailed and killed," Khalid said.But a resident, Aisami Modu, said they were killed because they shifted their loyalty from the camp of Shekau to that of his archrival, Al-Barnawi.

"The problem started shortly after the Boko Haram split, and those 10 people, who were traders and known to almost everyone in surrounding communities, were loyal to Boko Haram, which is why we call them: 'associate members.' They used to supply food, fuel, medicine and cloths to the terrorists, even though they didn't fight for them," he said.

"But the Shekau camp got angry when they shifted their loyalty to the other camp; that was why they were killed."

For the past four weeks, locals in Borno State said fierce encounter had taken place between fighters loyal to Shekau and those loyal to Al-Barnawi, struggling to displace one another. Five fighters loyal to Shekau were killed during a battle between the two factions in a community at the outskirts of Monguno last week, a local vigilante, Kolo Kuroskawwa, disclosed.

Other sources said that at least 18 Boko Haram fighters from the bushes around Monguno surrendered to the army, together with their families, as a result of the infighting.

"There is serious disarray now, and most of the Boko Haram fighters are apparently confused. Those loyal to Shekau are being trailed by the other faction and vice versa. It is now killing, killing and killing," Kuroskawwa said.

"And you know that there are some Boko Haram fighters that were forcefully conscripted, they are the ones that are now repenting and taking advantage of the dispute to surrender themselves to the Nigerian Army," he said.

Similarly, residents told the AFP Wednesday that several fighters from Shekau's camp had been killed last Thursday in two separate gun battles with IS-backed Barnawi gunmen in the Monguno area of Borno State, near Lake Chad.

Mele Kaka, who lives in the area, told AFP: "The Barnawi faction launched an offensive against the Shekau faction who were camped in the villages of Yele and Arafa. "In Yele, the assailants killed three people from the Shekau camp, injured one and took one with them, while several were killed in Arafa," he said by telephone from the state capital, Maiduguri. The attack prompted residents of Arafa to flee, he added.

Fighters from Barnawi camp had the previous day attacked gunmen loyal to Shekau in Zuwa village in the nearby Marte district, killing an unspecified number of people, Kaka said.

"The Barnawi fighters told villagers after each attack that they were fighting the other camp because they had derailed from the true jihad and were killing innocent people, looting their property and burning their homes. They said such acts contravened the teachings of Islam and true jihad," he said.

Factions Divide Borno into Two Jurisdictions

Findings by our reporter reveal that while the ISIS-backed Al-Barnawi has an upper hand in northern part of Borno State, which shares borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon along the shores of the Lake Chad, Shekau is still dominant in the central and southern parts of the state, where the large swathes of the Sambisa forest are located.

Sources said Al-Barnawi was giving Shekau a "tough time in northern Borno" by taking over the few places where the group had "some influence." Mamman Nur, the hitherto third in command to Shekau, who was declared wanted by the United States, is seen as the actual ISIS linkman in Nigeria, but is fronting Al-Barnawi as leader, in order to retain the loyalty of the original supporters of Mohammed Yusuf.

A community leader from northern Borno, who is now living in Maiduguri, but does not want his name mentioned, said: "The Al-Barnawi boys are trailing and killing Shekau's boys in places like Monguno, Kukawa, Damasak, Abadam, Marte and Kala-Balge, even though all the two factions are being confronted by the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF)."

"While only security officials can confirm if Al-Barnawi has started receiving support from ISIS or not, what we know is that they have black mercenaries from neighbouring countries who barely speak our local dialect," he added.

"But when you go to villages in Gwoza, Damboa and Chibok, which are all not far from the Sambisa forest, you find out that the few skirmishes being recorded recently are being perpetrated by the Shekau camp," said Alex Magaji, a farmer in the small village of Dabuli in Southern Borno.

Their Fight Good for Us - Civilian JTF

Leaders of the Borno Youths Vigilante, popularly known as Civilian JTF, said the infighting by the Boko Haram was probably the best news coming out of the violent group in recent times. Barrister Jibrin Gunda, the legal adviser of the vigilantes in Borno State, said the emergence of crack in any group signified the end of it, no matter how strong such group was.

"We welcome the development and we pray they would continue fighting and fragmenting. However, what I want to tell you is that none of them is better; we are looking for all of them. "The only ones that we would spare are those who repent, and they were the ones that would be taken as prisoners of war by the Nigerian Army.”If you look at recent events, our people, like the ones from Konduga and Mafa, are gradually leaving the IDP camps. All these positive things are happening because of the gradual return of peace. The Borno State government is working hard to take all the people back to their homes, and we, as vigilantes, welcome this feat," Gunda said.

How Ideological 'Differences' Made a Difference

When Abubakar Shekau launched a surprised comeback in 2010 after he had been reported killed by the Nigerian forces in the 2009 bloodbath in Maiduguri, he remained the indisputable leader of the Boko Haram for the next seven years. Nobody dared to question his "judgement," which began with isolated killings of policemen by shoot and run ragtag fighters, before it escalated to targeted killings of civilians with AK-47 rifles in their homes.

His group gradually added soldiers and other uniformed men to its killing list, just as it began to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at markets, motor parks, mosques, churches and other populated places, before it started taking hostages, as well as invading and occupying communities.

Shekau also described government, democracy, international relations and diplomacy as un-Islamic and vowed to destroy constituted authorities and replace them with Sharia system that would spare only those Muslims that believe in his teachings.

In March, 2015, Shekau paid allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader and renamed the Jama'atu Ahlus Sunnah LIdda'awati Wal Jihad he headed to Islamic State in West African Province (SWAP).

In the first week of August, this year, the ISIS announced Al-Barnawi, who is said to be in his 20s, as its new representative in West Africa.

Shekau Resisted

But few days after, Shekau kicked against the decision, explaining how he arrived at his "ideology" and how he differed with what the ISIS wanted to achieve.

"I was deceived but all I know is that Al-Barnawi and whoever is with him are infidels. I will never stray from the ideology of the Jama'atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da'awati wal-Jihad, which has its basis in the Quran," he said in a 10 minutes audio he released, after he had disappeared from glare for over a year.

"In the first place, we sat and I was deceived, they said I should write my ideology to be taken to them so that if there is a mistake they will point out and revert. They now deceived me, and... today I found out that there is one who is following the principles of the infidels, which they want me to follow, and the Prophet has stopped from doing that..

"We have heard news going round and attributed to people (ISIS) we had earlier pledged allegiance to. Although we are not against them, based on the message we heard in the radio, we are still on our ideology.

"We know those we differ from and I have written on this long ago. Because I stated it clearly that I am against the principle where someone will dwell in the society with the infidels without making public his opposition or anger against the infidels publicly as it is stated in the Qur'an. Anyone doing that can't be a Muslim, thick and thin. This is what our ideology proved and that is where I stand. To them, a Muslim can dwell in the society and do his marketing, compromising core foundations.

"I want the world to know that we are still holding our ideology and tied with the Qur'an, we will not derail and will not revolt, but will continue to remain in the cause of Allah. Following the Prophet (SAW) is compulsory for us, and we will follow him to the end," he said.

Al Barnawi Countered

Few days after Shekau gave his side of the story, Al Barnawi, with the support of Mamman Nur, reacted, saying Shekau was ousted because of various offences, including the killing of "fellow Muslims and living a life of affluence, living members to starve and hoarding of munitions."

"We are here to send a message across to Shekau who had released his own cassette," Mamman Nur said. "We would challenge anyone that challenges us, and we must bring out the true meaning of Islam because the religion does not belong to your father or mother.

"We would soon release our own video and you will see how Shekau is justifying killing people and boasting about it. We are not killers like him. If our intention were to kill, we would have killed him. Unknown to him, those he trust his life with are our people, we can kill him if we want, but we will not.

"We want him alive so that he would see that things can go on without him.”We will fight for the cause of Allah and work against personalising Jihad and against unjustifiable killings and shedding of blood. We are out because you came out with your own cassette. We want our people to know proper Islam because Allah in the Qur'an forbids killings without justification. Just like Allah gave us power to kill infidels, there are those he said we shouldn't kill without reason," Mamman Nur said.

"In the Qur'an, Allah forbids Muslims from killing one another... and He also taught against killing in secret. If it is a serious punishment, it must be public for people to know and witness it. But once you see killings in secret, there is something fishy, and this is what we noticed with Shekau. What he is doing is not Islam. He said we should follow him and we agreed, but we later realised it is another thing and we said no. We have to stick to the Qur'an and what Allah says, not following someone's waywardness," he added.

They also accused him of "inserting his opinion" while giving Fatwa (Islamic verdict), which, according to them, clearly contradicts the teaching of their founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

Who to Dialogue With?

From their recent body languages and utterances, the two factions are evidently amenable to a truce with the Nigerian authorities, observers have said.

For instance, Shekau, as evident in the video he released recently, is in possession of a large chunk of captives, including the over 200 Chibok girls that were abducted on April 14, 2014. Speaking through one of his long-time ally, Abu Zinnira, who appeared in the video with the girls, Shekau said only the release of his members in the custody of Nigerian authorities would guarantee the security of the girls.

On the other hand, Al-Barnawi, who is also reportedly in possession of some of the Chibok girls and other captives, is "the extensive knowledge at his disposal."

"You see, Shekau had accused the Al-Barnawi group of somehow being amenable to living under constituted authorities. This means that if the federal government would explore a window of getting him and giving him asylum, he could expose the whereabouts of Shekau and how to tame him," a source in Maiduguri said.