The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has named a new leader for one of its affiliated groups, Boko Haram. The new leader goes by the name Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The announcement is contained in the latest issue of the ISIS magazine.
Until now, al-Barnawi was the purported spokesperson of Boko Haram and very little about him is known to the public. The announcement did not mention the whereabouts of the former leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, but it is known that extremist groups consider a change of leadership when the leader is dead. Before now, it had been rumoured that Shekau had been killed, even though this is difficult to proof. However, in an audio message released last Wednesday, August 3, Shekau claims to be alive and still in control of the group. He refuted allegations that he has been replaced and reemphasized the zeal of his group to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” in West Africa. The audio cannot, however, be confirmed to be coming from him.
For about a year now, nothing has been heard of Shekau, who usually speaks through audio and video messages. Before the Wednesday audio message, Shekau was last heard of in an audio message delivered in August 2015 in which he claimed he was alive and still in control, a claim later backed by ISIS in April of this year. The governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. where Boko Haram is active, are yet to react to these mutations within Boko Haram.
A new leader breeds new spirit and fresh actions, and in most extremist groups, every new leader tries to “outdo” his predecessor by staging spectacular attacks as a means of engraving his legitimacy in the hearts of his followers and admirers. The coming in of al-Barnawi may signal a revival in Boko Haram, which has, recently, lost steam. Undoubtedly, the infighting in the group that has worsened would have an effect on the group’s capacity to act.
This, however, is not the first time infighting has occurred in the group. When Muhammed Yusuf was killed in July 2009, the most popular voice to succeed him was the Chadian born Mamman Nur, who, it is reported, has more experience and international contacts than Shekau. But, the latter imposed himself, which caused other dissatisfied members to move away and form another group, Ansaru. However, the two groups still cooperated. And this did not stop them from striking. Certainly, ISIS is looking for a more robust collaborator to make West Africa one of its fiefs. Shekau, who is described as a shortsighted and power-drunk leader was not a guaranteed match for the top job.
If confirmed, al-Barnawi would be the third leader of Boko Haram. The first was Muhammed Yusuf (2002-2009), succeeded by Shekau. He was replaced by Shekau after returning from treatment, as he himself was wounded in the July 2009 uprising. It was under the leadership of Shekau that the group pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015. And, since then, the group has been referring to itself as the Islamic State of the Province of West Africa. However, the extent of ISIS’ influence over Boko Haram remains unknown given the distance separating the two.
Since Shekau took over the leadership of Boko Haram the group has become more ruthless, killing about 20,000 persons. Shekau has taken the group beyond the confines of Northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger–with serious consequences. Under him, Boko Haram has invested heavily in suicide bombings, targeting not just westerners, but local inhabitants, including Muslims. With remarkable attacks committed by ISIS and its followers round the world–who have infiltrated most sectors of public life–it is likely that the group is seeking a new front-runner to carry their message beyond the usual remote abode of Boko Haram.