By Ibrahim Lawal Ahmed
On May 19th, 2021, the HumAngle, an online media platform reported that the notorious Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, was dead and that he died in a battle with a rival faction of Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). This was confirmed by the terrorists in a video released on June 17th, 2021. This brings to the fore the issue of understanding the dynamism and the logic of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is an ideology of establishing an Islamic caliphate through violent means that emerged under a façade of salafi/sunni renaissance held and propagated dominantly by the youth in Nigeria. There is an Islamic doctrine (belief) preached by scholars that ‘if you see a party (group) dominated by the youth lacking any substantial guidance from the elderly, that party is dangerous.’ Why? Because youthfulness drives pursuance of extreme and extremism can evolve to adoption of violent measures. According to Ibrahim Mu’azzam and Jibrin Ibrahim, the destitution caused by the failure of governance at all levels in Nigeria leads to the emergence of primarily religious and ethnic oriented individuals. This contributed to the strategic use of theology, and the preaching of exaggerated and fascinating tales of el-dorado Islamic Caliphate which resulted in the growing fancy of its resurgence. As the narration was narrowed to that of war, jihad came/comes to be understood by the young, shallow mind as essentially “violence.”
Subsequently, the orthodox Islamic scholars, perceived as being opposed to sticking to the Qur’an and Hadith, came to be viewed as failure for not leading the jihad. In turn, Boko Haram narrowed their own focus of guidance to only Qur’an and Hadith in order to avoid the pitfall of the orthodox Islamic scholars who had imbibed Qiyas (logic) and Ijma (consensus). Moreover, they also chose to imbibe Zahirriya (empiricism) in their interpretations, negating allegorical meanings of the Holy Book and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). Thus, they ended up as Khawarij (fundamentalists). Consequently, the Boko Haram narration created an elusive ecstasy to a significant segment of the populace which overwhelms existing pains of pauperization. Owing to this, the fear of death was easily eroded in pursuit of a fantasized eternal delight (paradise). Supported with ammunition, training and even personnel from AQIM (Al-Qaeda in Maghareb) and Al-Shabab, Boko Haram is now regarded as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
We always assume that Boko Haram was a united force, but the reality is contrary. Abubakar Shekau, Mamman Nur, Khalid Al-Barnawi, Abu Muhammad and Abu Fatima were the leaders of the people we view as Boko Haram. Shekau’s faction operates dominantly in the North-East and until recently, it is numerically higher in number. They are good in frontal attacks on security formations. Mamman Nur is a suicide bomber specialist trained by Al-Shabaab. He was involved in the planning – and was even said to be the master-mind – of the suicide bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja on August 26th, 2011. Khalid Barnawi is viewed as the most intelligent of them all. He was trained by AQIM and rose to be commander of one of the AQIM’s training camps deputized by Abu Muhammad. He was, before being arrested in 2017, leader of the Ansaru faction of Boko Haram with members such as the notorious Kabiru Sokoto. Abu Fatima was the commander of the suicide mission of Ansaru. The Ansaru faction operates dominantly in the North-Central States of Nigeria. Their main tactics are ambush, kidnappings and suicide bombing.
Boko Haram resurrected in factional form after the death of Muhammad Yusuf largely because of discord over succession between Mamman Nur and Abubakar Shekau with Khalid Al-Barnawi also going against Shekau. While each of these commanders had their staunch followers, Shekau had a higher number compared to others. These commanders, overtime, form alliances, secede from and even fight against each other. Mamman Nur, Abu Fatima, Al-Barnawi and Abu Muhammad had a consistent alliance as Ansaru faction of Boko Haram. The Ansaru faction suffered more due to fury of the Nigerian Security forces on them because of the nature of their operations, which were mainly suicide bombings. One thing with Ansaru was, whether they were in alliance with Shekau or operating independently, they always made use of images of Shekau in their propaganda videos because the commanders did not want to expose themselves. This led to the emergence of a ‘fake Shekau.’
From late 2013 to early 2014, Ansaru suffered formidable damage from consistent attacks by security forces who were aided by tips from the Shekau-led faction. Ansaru then realigned with Shekau’s faction and Nur was appointed second-in-command. It was at that transition of alliance that suicide bombings and kidnappings became the dominant operations of Boko Haram in both the North-Eastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon. As stated above, suicide bombings and kidnappings are the main tactics and specialty of Ansaru commanders. The former rose from 10 (2011-2013) to more than 200 (2014-2016) in the North East, whilst kidnappings also surged significantly.
In Nigeria, their biggest hit was the abduction of over 300 girls from Chibok, in Borno State, which became more sensational than they anticipated. In Cameroon, the kidnapping of the wife of the Deputy Prime-Minister was the group’s biggest hit; an action that deprived them of the haven they enjoyed in Cameroon in terms of recruitments, hide-outs and training. Nevertheless, this spree enabled Boko Haram to finance the purchase of arms and ammunition which empowered the group to completely change their tactics to that of full invasion and conquering of cities and villages.
The regaining of Boko Haram-controlled spaces by the Nigerian Armed Forces and other regional forces shattered Boko Haram’s command and organizational structure. Ansaru commanders broke away from Shekau’s faction. However, its resurrection in 2016 was short-lived as one of their top commanders, Khalid Barnawi was arrested in April of that same year. The other break-away commanders, who were mostly Ansaru leaders, decided to form a new faction which they named Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Unlike Ansaru, ISWAP does not use Shekau’s image in their videos but rather, Musab Al-Barnawi (Muhammad Yusuf’s son) appears in the videos. This is because ISWAP paid its allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Still, the change of outlook did not change ISWAP’s Ansaru-inspired tactics – kidnappings and suicide bombings. The main difference this time around was their preference to be more frontal in their attacks, targeting isolated Forward Bases of the military. As a group, ISWAP are also particularly effective in psychological warfare. They initiated retreating with the bodies of their foot soldiers killed in a battle with security forces – a shrewd tactics aimed at checking the morale boost that their casualties give to the security forces.
ISWAP’s biggest hit was the kidnapping of girls in Dapchi, Yobe State -although, unlike the girls kidnapped in Chibok, those abducted in Dapchi were released quickly. The terms of their release was said to be the main reason for the execution of Nur by ISWAP’s Shura (governing council). They accused Nur of being too soft and not having fully taken advantage of Dapchi girls’ kidnapping to promote their operations (they obviously wished that Nur should have at least created a great deal of sensation with the kidnapping, like that of Chibok girls). Nur and Khalid Al-Barnawi shared a principle of establishing good rapport with locals/civilians (notwithstanding, they may kill the civilians when necessary). They see having local support as crucial to success. Therefore, their targets are sensitive, rather than random areas. The extra-judicial killing of civilians by Shekau was part of the reasons behind the fall-out of Shekau and Ansaru commanders in 2016. This is confirmed by Mus’ab in a video announcing the formation of ISWAP in which he revealed that “the biggest problem of that servant of God (Shekau) is he loves killing (people).” With the execution of Nur, ISWAP chose Mustapha Kirmimma as their new leader.
With Mustapha Kirmimma as their leader, ISWAP intensified attacks on Forward Operational Bases of the Military in remote areas, particularly around border fringes. This forced the Nigerian Army to come up with ‘Super Camp’ tactics. The idea of a Super Camp is to garrison and concentrate a large number of troops in a fortified location capable of withstanding the ferocious attacks of the terrorists. While that may have reduced the casualties of troops, it, however, leaves several spaces unsecured, giving terrorists a lot of room to roam about and increasing the inaccessibility to vulnerable areas for humanitarian aid. It has also set back the refugee relocation efforts of the Government of Borno State.
According to some reports, while members of the ISWAP were breaking away from Shekau’s command, they left their wives in the camps of Shekau. That was why ISWAP kept attacking Shekau’s faction until finally, in May 21st 2021, after tense battle, they were able to overrun Shekau and his followers. The success over Shekau provides ISWAP with the opportunity to re-unite with their spouses and re-strengthen themselves with Shekau’s men and armoury. On June16th, 2021, a video was released that showed the terrorists, who are said to include members of the Shekau’s faction, paying allegiance to Abu Ibrahim Al’Hishimiyil Al’Khuraishi as the new leader. The question is, what will change with the ISWAP taking a leading terrorist position in the North East?
It is pertinent to always note that the aim of Boko Haram, no matter the change of nomenclature, is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the North-Eastern Nigeria. With ISWAP gaining over Shekau’s faction, they can now focus on the Nigerian Military. In the coming days, unless national and regional security forces take the war to ISWAP, ISWAP will intensify its ambushes to patrolling troops and launching surprise attacks on military formations. Unlike Shekau, ISWAP will not be ravaging the towns they conquered and terrorizing the people. Instead, they are more likely to try to gain the trust and sympathy of local people whilst trying to establish influence among the bandits in the North West.
Regarding North-Western Nigeria, Jacob Zenn, a security expert, wrote in 2017 that Boko Haram had escaped to the northern Sahel (Niger, Chad and Mali) recruiting Fulani and Tuaregs to fill their ranks and file. In an earlier separate piece, Zenn explained how Boko Haram kept on trying to divert attention of the Nigerian security forces by intensifying their operations (killings) in the North-West and Central States; aiming to incite religious tension since the zone is prone to that type of crisis. If Boko Haram has this plan and if it has indeed recruited Fulani people among its ranks, then it is safe to assume that Boko Haram is now a formidable invisible actor, more than likely, responsible for the indiscriminate killings that have so far led to the displacement of people, the looting of resources and the kidnappings by the so called ‘Fulani-herdsmen.’ Already, security operatives have reported the presence of Ansaru Camps in the North-West and Central States where banditry is high. Like typical Boko Haram fighters, these bandits are mobile and have so far shown resilience. It seems plausible that Boko Haram not only uses the Fulani under its control, but also those who are independent (criminal Fulani) by arming them. The aim, as stated above, is to divert attention and stretch the resources of the Nigerian security forces.
The Nigerian security forces have to intensify intelligence gathering to identify the camps and movements of Boko Haram and bandits. They also need to bump up both their capacity to quickly respond to distress calls and their ability to embark on special rescue and clearance missions. The operations of the Multi-National Joint Task Force should be intensified. There should be more co-operations and co-ordination among security forces in region, especially those in the Sahel. Strengthening such ties will weaken the ability of Boko Haram to recoup from set-backs. Moreover, the Nigerian citizens have to be continuously enlightened on the fallacy of Boko Haram ideas, the danger they posit to the nation and the relevance of their support to the success of the Nigeria security forces.
The author is a graduate student of Political Science, specialising in Political Violence