On Tuesday 2nd August Daesh’s weekly magazine al Naba featured an interview with a man named as ‘Abu Musab al Barnawi’ who they claimed was the Wali of their West African Province.
‘Abubakar Shekau’ the former erstwhile leader promptly responded on 3rd August with an audio message insisting he was still the leader, complaining about being undermined by al Barnawi and ignored by al Baghdadi and accusing al Barnawi of apostasy.
Al Barnawi promptly responded with an audio message of his own denouncing Shekau as a hypocrite and coward, including the fairly specific insult that Shekau should …. just go home and sleep with your wives and slaves while we are suffering…’.
In true Nollywood fashion (where every story has Part 1-4 in the first week of release) not to be outdone; Shekau released a video on the 7th of August showing large numbers of armed fighters, including 2 fighters flanking him armed with what appeared to be MANPADS, while he repeated his complaints.
Whilst these developments might be curious and amusing to Boko Haram watchers they must be seen in the context of Boko Haram’s evolution from militant group to fighting force and as part of their journey to gain acceptance amongst the global jihadi movement.
Although links to AQIM, al Shabaab, MUJAO etc. have assisted them operationally, they are yet to reap the benefits in recruitment, outreach and fund raising that other groups such as al Qaeda, Daesh or al Shabaab have achieved, mainly due to their confused messaging and indiscriminate attacks on Muslims, mosques and other civilians.
Initial attempts to join al Qaeda were rebuffed or ignored for the above reasons and even initial attempts to join Daesh required several offers of allegiance which were not accepted until March 2015 as Daesh’s fortunes began to wane and it needed to project an image of reach and strength.
This alliance to date this has mainly involved rebranding, improved videos and use of Daesh social media (and now a leadership tussle) but little operational benefits.
Thus whilst this interview might appear to demonstrate a dangerous new twist indicating Boko Haram is now under more direct and disciplined control of Daesh, in fact it raises a variety of factors with differing conclusions.
Factions: Boko Haram has always consisted of numerous factions. Analysts such as Fulan Nusrullah Ahmed Salkida and Jacob Zenn have produced excellent reporting on the various personalities and factions in Boko Haram, which has been characterised by a dispute conducted through various means over operational and ideological differences between the different factions led by Mohammed Yusuf’s sons, Shekau, Ansaru and others. These differences have been undoubtedly exacerbated by attrition of leaders, men and materiel from the successes of Op Lafiya Dole and the MNJTF, which appears to have led to an internal reordering of Boko Haram and an opportunity for the al Barnawi (or Yusufiyya) faction to improve their chances by cementing their links with Daesh to the detriment of the Shekau faction. The increased bitterness of the split could lead to fratricide as reportedly happened previously when Shekau betrayed Ansaru to the Nigerian security forces.
Proof of life: the fact that Shekau was able to release an audio and video response so rapidly indicates he is not just alive and at liberty but still has access to his command and communication structures. To survive in a brutal world where you are a target to erstwhile allies as well as Nigerian and other forces, Shekau must also have sufficient combat power to protect him as well, as his video demonstrated.
Practical Support: Boko Haram’s most useful foreign links came through Ansaru’s links to MUJAO and AQIM, which enabled them to conduct kidnap for ransoms and other operations and access their networks. Whilst these did not translate into large scale strategic support they provided operational benefits. Closer operational and strategic links were lacking due partly to distance and logistics but mainly ideological and operational objections to Boko Harams use of children as Person Borne IEDs, indiscriminate attacks on Muslim and civilians, incoherent pronouncements and eccentric presentations. Thus far Daesh has provided little operational support for its far flung Wilayats, in fact the latest propaganda videos have emphasised the self reliance of the Boko Haram Waliyat showing weapons captured in Yobe State and Diffa Region. What support Daesh could provide Boko Haram whilst it is under pressure in almost all theatres is unclear.
Fratricide: Daesh is as hated by fellow jihadist movements as it is by the peoples and governments it opposes. Daeshs most lethal foe in Somalia is al Shabaab, likewise in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and so on other jihadist groups oppose them, whilst local truces to fight common foes have occurred, the public bitterness of the split makes this unlikely in the North East Nigeria/ Lake Chad area. The extent of the internal conflict can range from refusal cooperate, exchanging insults over propaganda networks, raiding each others men and territory or else trying to outdo each other with increasingly spectacular attacks on the security forces and the civilian populace.
Territory: whilst the key terrain for the enemy has remained the Lake Chad area and the Mandara Mountain and their approaches, military circumstance has forced them away from southern and central Yobe and Borno State and Northern and Central Adamawa State.
However in the north of Borno State and Yobe State, the enemy are able to hold territory and periodically launch major assaults.
Lake Chad and the Mandaras are attractive not just due to the rough inhospitable terrain and lack of government presence but because they are areas of economic benefit from smuggling and taxes on fish and produce trade in the Lake Chad area to livestock and produce in Mubi and other border towns.
Analysis seems to indicate that the al Barnawi faction are in the Lake Chad area to the north of the AO whilst the Shekau faction remains in Sambisa Forest in central Borno State.
This can be deduced from the fact that Daesh videos have featured attacks on Geidam and Diffa (in the north of the AO), as well as other unnamed preachers and commanders but conspicuously not Shekau. In al Barnawi’s response to Shekaus video, he states ‘…this message of mine will get to Sambisa Forest, it will get to Shekau’s house…’. Also footage from Daesh video shows scrub Sahel terrain, whilst Shekau’s video shows tall grass and bushy trees consistent with a swampy forest like the Sambisa.
Territory is relevant for two reasons, the first is that Nigerian forces have focused on defeating Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest and have done a relatively good job of reducing their forces as an be evinced by the lack of successful IED attacks, relatively few small arms attacks on friendly forces, the fact that most raids are conducted for food or livestock and the fact that most Boko Haram bases are guarded by old men with dane guns or bow and arrows. This compares with operations in the north where fighters are well equipped with rifles, webbing, machine guns and vehicles. The second reason is that access to that area means that al Barnawi’s forces will still have access (however difficult) to the smuggling routes into the Sahel.
Whilst the MNJTFs Op Gama Aiki is targeting the north, without a commitment of significant Nigerian forces (currently tied up in the south and centre of the AO), the enemy to the north operates with much more freedom and impunity.
Strategic offensive: Daesh is suffering significant defeats in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya. It has attempted to counter this with a campaign of terrorism on continental Europe, which in turn inspires mentally unbalanced adherents to carry out copycat attacks. These actions seek not only to divert resources by European powers but sow discord against native Muslim populations and project an image of strength. By highlighting their new ‘Wali’ in Nigeria, Daesh furthers this narrative for very little cost.
Propaganda: In the interview ‘al Barnawi’ attempts to reposition Boko Haram away from their indiscriminate attacks on Muslims and focus on ‘Crusader governments’ and Christians in line with Daesh orthodoxy.
This refocus as well as an explicit condemnation of Shekaus excesses allows Daesh to attempt to court popular support from the disenfranchised masses in the Lake Chad region. If this is followed up by attacks on churches which lead to retaliation against Muslims they stand to exploit the results of this.
Tactics and Procedures: attacks to the north of the AO have focused on military targets, there have been very few IED attacks, whilst in the south IED attacks on markets and mosques are still attempted. It is likely that any IED attacks attributed to Daesh would be against Christian, military/ police, western or government targets with an attempt to avoid overtly Muslim targets.
Nigerianess: the leadership dispute is refreshingly Nigerian, publicly belittling your rival, accusing them of corruption and even bringing wives into it is modus operandi for all Nigerian leaders, obviously Boko Haram would not be out of place in the National Assembly
The links between Daesh and Boko Haram will be maintained because it benefits both parties.
For Daesh, it allows them to present an image of strength and ubiquity, it gives an almost overwhelmingly Arab group an African presence and all for very little expenditure.
For al Barnawi’s faction, the alliance gives them legitimacy as the real Boko Haram, defenders of Islam against crusaders and infidels.
In the worst case scenario, the alliance becomes (literally) weaponised with weapons, ammunition and manpower flowing to the group from Libya or the Middle East with anti tank and anti aircraft missiles negating the advantage of armour, protected mobility and air support enjoyed by Nigerian and allied forces. However, these weapon systems are also sorely needed by Daesh and the cost and risk of transporting them to West Africa where their use might not be successful and would not be in sufficient numbers to be decisive represents a diversion of resources they can ill afford.
However, (as appears more likely) if Daesh is defeated in Libya, the Lake Chad area gives them a rear area to reconstitute as well as a pool of manpower.
The wild card of course is Shekau, whose past behaviour indicates his preferred response is violence rather than audio and video, however the question is whether he would risk fighting people who know his bases, supply chains, sub commanders and other factors intimately. The presence of MANPADS in his videos are obviously troubling however displaying them when they have not been used allows the NAF to prepare counter measures even if they are operational which is unlikely as these delicate weapon systems need specialised storage and calibration unlikely to be available in Sambisa Forest.
The likely probability is that Shekau will eventually tire of the propaganda ping pong and attempt to prove his worth in blood.
Whilst there are limited operational advantages there are many strategic benefits to both groups to this alliance, however in practical terms the biggest effect will be the upcoming civil war between al Barnawi and Shekau factions, how it is fought and who are the targets.
For both Shekau and al Barnawi, suffering the attentions of Op Lafiya Dole in the south and Op Gama Aiki in the north and Op Alpha in the east, this public spat is a welcome distraction again following the Marxist playbook of distracting their opponent’s attention with other means of combat.
For friendly forces the division is a clear opportunity to turn each side against the other and mop up the survivors, it is clear unfortunately that while these sick elephants fight the unfortunate people of the North East will suffer anew