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Behind Boko Haram's Split: A Leader Too Radical for Islamic State

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Sept. 15, 2016

Some people can be too extreme even for Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliphate’s biggest and deadliest franchise outside the Middle East, the “West Africa Province” also known as Boko Haram, fractured in recent weeks over Islamic State’s decision to replace its notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Mr. Shekau hasn’t recognized the August appointment of a rival Boko Haram commander, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, as the group’s new “governor.” The two factions have repeatedly clashed since then and their followers have accused each other of abandoning the true faith.

This split, while weakening Boko Haram in the immediate term, could have dramatic consequences for how jihadists continue their struggle in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. Boko Haram’s areas of influence were cut down by the recent offensives of regional militaries, which were aided by U.S., British and French advisers. But the group still controls large chunks of north-eastern Nigeria and operates in parts of Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

Mr. Shekau took over Boko Haram after its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in Nigerian police custody in 2009. He unleashed a strategy of unbridled terror, treating Muslim villages that didn’t join his organization as legitimate targets. Over the past year, he sent scores of children on suicide missions to blow up markets and mosques—with local Muslim civilians making up the vast majority of the casualties.

“You can’t really be more barbaric and more savage than Shekau. He’s the pinnacle of barbarism,” said Issoufou Yahaya, a political analyst and head of the history department at the Niamey University in Niger.

Dispatching child suicide bombers to Sunni mosques was apparently too much even for Islamic State’s leadership in Syria and Iraq. In August, the organization’s newspaper al-Naba published an interview with Mr. Barnawi that made no mention of Mr. Shekau. Instead it referred to Mr. Barnawi, who is rumoured to be a son of the Nigerian group’s founder, Mr. Yusuf, as the new “governor” of the West Africa Province.

A surprised Mr. Shekau responded by accusing his rival of apostasy and by complaining that Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been tricked.

Nigeria’s military, which has repeatedly announced Mr. Shekau’s death in the past, claimed to have seriously injured him in a late August airstrike. There has been no independent confirmation of that claim.

In an implicit criticism of Boko Haram’s strategy until now, Mr. Barnawi told al-Naba that the jihadists should focus on combating Nigeria’s Christians—a target largely ignored by Mr. Shekau in recent years. The new approach should be “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all those we find from the citizens of the cross,” Mr. Barnawi announced.

Such a shift has the potential to revive a degree of popular support for Boko Haram, especially if the group succeeds in exploiting existing communal tensions in areas with mixed Muslim and Christian populations. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is roughly 40% Christian, and there is a large Christian minority in Chad and a Christian majority in Cameroon.

“Shekau’s approval of attacking Muslims indiscriminately led to a situation of significant loss of support within the Muslim community. The fact that he could kill Muslims praying in a mosque convinced the locals that he is not really fighting for Islam,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “The return to systematic attacks against Christians would be very dangerous. It could lead to a wider confessional conflict.”

Paradoxically, out of the two Boko Haram leaders, it’s Mr. Barnawi who is closest to Islamic State’s main ideological rival in the jihadist universe, al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African affiliate, has adopted a similar focus on targeting Christians and Westerners, attacking hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in the past year. Back in 2012, Boko Haram militants close to Mr. Barnawi trained in al Qaeda-controlled northern Mali, a fact that he mentioned in his al-Naba interview.

Still, the vast distance between Boko Haram’s area of operations and other jihadist front lines means that neither al Qaeda nor Islamic State’s leadership can do much to intervene in the dispute beyond issuing statements.

“The local dynamics of the insurrection are much more important here,” said Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, an expert on Boko Haram at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “We shouldn’t assign too much significance to them pledging allegiance to Islamic State or making references to al Qaeda. The only expertise that was actually transferred is how to make HD videos.”

Since the split, Mr. Shekau has resumed using the name Boko Haram, which it dropped when he pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year. Subsequent video releases showed large formations of Boko Haram fighters expressing their loyalty to Mr. Shekau, condemning Mr. Barnawi and threatening Nigeria’s Muslim president, Muhammadu Buhari.

“In the context of this conflict, Shekau’s group is likely to be stronger, unless Barnawi manages to get a lot of support from Islamic State,” said Atta Barkindo, a specialist on the Nigerian insurgency at the SOAS University of London. “Shekau was in control of territory and of the wealth, Barnawi won’t be able to acquire the resources that Shekau already controls—and the way these guys operate is they always go to where the resources are.”