Who’s in charge of Boko Haram?

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

With two different commanders claiming they are running the show, who really is in charge of ‘the world’s deadliest terror group’?

On 2 August, Islamic State (IS) announced in their newspaper an-Naba that Abu Musab al-Barnawi had taken over the role of governor of their West Africa Province – the name that Boko Haram has officially carried since they pledged allegiance to IS in 2015. This effectively meant that Abubakar Shekau, head of Boko Haram since 2009, had been deposed. However, just one day after IS announced Barnawi’s leadership, Shekau claimed that he is still in charge, leading to speculation over just who commands Boko Haram. So, more than two months after this rift was revealed, can we for certain say who really is in charge of Boko Haram?

Why the change in leadership?

Clearly, IS was not happy with Shekau’s leadership and in Barnawi has chosen a different kind of leader. Barnawi has been praised for his knowledge of social media, something Shekau failed at despite significant help from IS after the formal merger between the two. Barnawi is also more soft-spoken and coherent in his statements, compared to Shekau’s rambling and disjointed speaking style. There have been reports of IS replacing Shekau because he was too brutal and violent even for IS, especially his targeting of Muslim civilians. This may be overstated, given that Barnawi in his interview with an-Naba stated that Boko Haram will continue ‘to blow up every church’ and ‘kill every Christian that [they] can find.’

Nevertheless, there have reportedly been internal disagreements regarding Boko Haram’s indiscriminate killings of Muslims, which may have played a role in Shekau’s ousting. Perhaps, the decision to install Barnawi was taken as a step towards re-directing Boko Haram towards being more of a fundamentalist and militant Islamic movement, such as it was seen during founder Mohammad Yusuf’s leadership, rather than a full-fledged and senseless terrorist organisation. Given that Barnawi is Mohammad Yusuf’s son, his tenure may help to bring back some of those alienated by Shekau’s wanton violence.

Different factions, different contenders

Shekau’s refusal to admit defeat demonstrates that Boko Haram is not, and perhaps never was, a (wholly) united organisation. In general, the ties to Islamic State had, according to intelligence officials, already caused major rifts within the organisation. Therefore, we may need to look at Boko Haram as an organisation consisting of various groups and factions. Boko Haram expert Jacob Zenn has identified at least three dominant factions: one loyal to Barnawi, one to Shekau, and a third loyal to Mamman Nur, a Cameroonian who masterminded the attack on the UN compound in Abuja in 2011. Nur broke away from Boko Haram in 2012 to form splinter group Ansaru, but has reportedly come back into Boko Haram and is according to some estimates the group’s number three in command. Technically, however, his faction does not consider themselves as part of the larger IS conglomerate, which further highlights how complex Boko Haram’s inner workings are.

The three factions differ on crucial points. Barnawi is, as mentioned, less extreme regarding the killings of Muslim civilians, and has a vision for Boko Haram which encompasses the Lake Chad region. This may be another reason why IS thought him to be fit for their large ambitions. Interestingly, Barnawi is seen as ideologically more aligned with al-Qaeda than with IS, except on the issue of creating an Islamic caliphate. Given that this is an objective that both Barnawi and IS are keen to achieve, Barnawi seems to have put aside any other ideological concerns for the time being.

Shekau is a lot more ideologically aligned with IS and has retained his pledge to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi despite being ousted. However, since IS commanders like Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who formally accepted Shekau’s pledge of allegiance, are now dead, Shekau has few allies within the higher ranks if IS central. Compared to Barnawi and Nur, he also does not have historically good relations with al-Qaeda (although the bin Laden files showed that Shekau wrote to bin Laden to suggest a merger between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda). As a result, his faction may find itself isolated, despite having the largest amount of fighters loyal to it.

Nur has the least amount of fighters within his faction but has displayed an ability to bring together people from various countries, and primarily from the Sahel. Ansaru, his splinter group, has usually enjoyed good relations with Sahelian groups, such Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In fact, AQIM reportedly manufactured the bomb Nur used for the Abuja attack in August 2011. Nur may be able to snatch up some of the West African fighters returning from Libya after IS was kicked out of their stronghold in Sirte, and may then present a force to be reckoned with. It is questionable if Nur would launch a leadership challenge against Barnawi, however, as the two are largely seen as being on good terms.

Expect a power struggle

Despite their distinct attributes, the three factions do not seem to be willing to break out of the Boko Haram umbrella. Rather, what awaits is most likely a power struggle between the various elements. For the moment, Barnawi seems to be winning, but his fate his inevitably intertwined with that of IS in Syria and Iraq. The whole ordeal gets more complicated when considering suspicions, presented by David Gartenstein Ross and Jacob Zenn, that Barnawi may, in fact, be an al-Qaeda mole – despite being appointed by al-Qaeda’s rivals IS. The suspicions are based on both the fact that Barnawi is seen as more ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda, but also the inclusion of several Ansaru and Yusufiya Islamic Movement fighters under his ranks, as well as in Boko Haram as general (such as Nur). These groups have traditionally held good relations with al-Qaeda and shown strong anti-Shekau tendencies. Barnawi might use the opportunity to marginalise Shekau and, after the eventual crumbling of the Islamic State, bring Boko Haram back towards al-Qaeda. In fact, Al-Qaeda fighters have reportedly infiltrated IS ranks in Yemen and Afghanistan, so this scenario is not entirely unrealistic.

So, who is really in charge of Boko Haram? If the past two months have taught us anything, it is that there are now various versions of Boko Haram, each with their own leader. However, one should not necessarily expect the group to break apart. Various factions within the group have quarrelled and fought internally before, but they have usually reunited. Only time will tell if they will do so again this time.


The image at the top shows Abubakar Shekau and is a screengrab from a video recording.


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