‘Son’ of Boko Haram’s founder named group’s leader
When the Islamic State group appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the head of Boko Haram early in August, few people even recognised his name.
But to close observers of Nigerian jihadi affairs, Barnawi’s promotion from relatively unknown spokesman to leader came as no surprise.
After all, many experts say that Barnawi, born Habib Yusuf, is the 22-year-old son of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf.
Barnawi’s appointment by IS has deepened a rift with longtime chief Abubakar Shekau, who later released a video insisting he was in charge and vowing to fight on.
Nigeria’s military claimed on Tuesday that Shekau had been wounded in an air strike on Boko Haram’s forest stronghold but this has yet to be confirmed.
Yusuf senior died in police custody following a 2009 military crackdown on the sect in the northeastern city of Maiduguri that spurred the group to take up arms against the Nigerian government.
“Abu Musab al-Barnawi is the son of late Mohammed Yusuf,” tweeted Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist who specialises in covering the insurgency.
“He is the first surviving son,” confirmed Fulan Nasrullah, a conflict researcher based in Nigeria, also in a Twitter post.
Shekau himself had taken Barnawi under his wing when he was still a teenager, and gave him a new Arabic name meaning “the man from Borno”.
Barnawi was “like a younger brother or son to Shekau”, Nasrullah said, describing him as one of the chief’s two trusted right hand men.
The teenager could not have had a more fearsome mentor.
Shekau instructed him in the art of war as he transformed Boko Haram from a strict Islamic sect into a jihadist movement that laid waste to swathes of territory in the northeast.
Since 2009, the group has killed an estimated 20,000 people, prompted 2.6 million to flee their homes, and kidnapped thousands of people, including hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok in the northern state of Borno.
– Secret killings –
Barnawi made his first public appearance in a January 2015 video claiming responsibility for a Boko Haram attack in the northeastern town of Baga, where many civilians were massacred.
The first signs of a rift appeared after Shekau pledged allegiance to IS in March that year and changed Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
According to sources close to the jihadist group and familiar with its operations, Barnawi broke with Shekau and turned to Mamman Nur, a strategist who had served as Shekau’s deputy and was a close ally and confidant of Barnawi’s father.
Nur and Barnawi took fighters out of Sambisa forest to areas along Lake Chad, where the savannah grasslands meet the Sahara desert.
They openly criticised Shekau’s brutal leadership style, alleging he secretly killed top militant commanders who disagreed with him.
They also blamed him for the setbacks the group had suffered since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari came into office in 2015.
The sources close to Boko Haram say Nur turned down the official leadership of ISWAP, suggesting it go instead to his protege while he directs from behind the scenes.
– ‘Dictatorial tendencies’ –
Writing in the IS magazine this month, Barnawi made a pointed critique of Shekau’s tenure, lambasting him for targeting “ordinary people who are attributed to Islam”.
Omar Mahmood, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, says the split between Shekau and Barnawi is rooted in a dispute over the definition of a Muslim and concerns about Shekau’s “dictatorial tendencies”.
Shekau believes that “those who are not active in opposition to non-Islamic institutions lose their status as Muslims”, including “internally displaced people and refugees,” Mahmood said in an August lecture posted online.
This unorthodox view has led Boko Haram to use children as suicide bombers to attack markets, mosques and bus stops.
It also explains the massive death toll inflicted by Boko Haram — higher than any other terrorist group in the world, according to a 2015 report by the New York-based Institute for Economics and Peace.
In contrast, according to Mahmood, Barnawi believes that “unless someone is taking part in an overt conspiracy against Islam they retain their Muslim status.”
Shekau’s reputation for secretly killing commanders who disagreed with him, rushing into action and “making up his own Koranic interpretations” were also a source of frustration to IS, said Mahmood.
The result is that IS “appears to have sided with Barnawi,” added the researcher.
Though Buhari announced that Boko Haram was “technically defeated” in 2015, the jihadist group continues to sow terror in the Lake Chad region.
There have been unfounded reports of Shekau’s death or injury in the past, but if his reported injuries turn out to be fatal, Barnawi is well-placed to consolidate his newfound position at centre stage.