Cutting the Head off the Chicken: Decapitation Operations in North East Nigeria

The Boko Haram campaign this year has been characterised mainly by the slow, grinding advances of Nigerian led forces and the humanitarian catastrophe Boko Haram left in their wake. Boko Harams contribution has been limited with reduced bomb attacks against civilian targets and relatively few attacks and ambushes.

The most newsworthy event has been the leadership squabbles between Abubakar Shekau’ and ‘Abu Musab al Barnawi’. The timeline of this squabble (below) and follow on events is worth discussing.


02 August: Daesh’s weekly magazine al Naba names Abu Musab al Barnawi as the Wali of their West African Province.

03 August: Abubakar Shekau releases an audio message insisting he is still the leader of Boko Haram

06 August: audio message from Al Barnawi (or Mamman Nur) faction denounces Shekau as a hypocrite and coward

07 August: Shekau releases a video with a large numbers of armed fighters, including 2 fighters with what appeared to be MANPADS, while he repeats his complaints against the other groups

13 August: a video is released showing at least 50 alleged GSS Chibok abductees, with a masked Hausa speaking gunman claiming to be Shekau’s successor offering to swap the girls for imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. The videos release was previewed by journalist Ahmed Salkida

14 August: The Army declares 3 people (Ahmed Salkida, Ambassador Ahmed U. Bolori and Aisha Wakil) wanted. Allegedly for their contacts with Boko Haram and knowledge of the GSS Chibok abductees whereabouts.

15 August: Aisha Wakil turned herself in at Defence HQ, ABUJA, FCT

16 August: the Nigerian Military stated that it did not declare Waklil, Bolori and Salkida wanted in the criminal sense but to get their assistance on strategies to combat Boko Haram

17 August: Mrs Wakil was released from DSS custody without charges

19 August: NAF conducts night airstrikes on targets in the Sambisa Forest, in Taye Village, in the vicinity of Gombale, Bama LGA, Borno State. The NAF also conducts air strikes with attack helicopters that same night on a target between Malam Fatori, Abadam LGA and Kangarwa, Kukuwa LGA reportedly killed up to 300 Boko Haram.

23 August: The military publicly announces the airstrikes of 19th August stating that the northern air strikes had been supported by ISR missions conducted on 16 August to ‘corroborate human intelligence that key BHT commanders gather at said location’ and that they had inflicted heavy casualties including 3 enemy commanders Abubakar Mubi, Malam Nuhu and Malam Hamman and ‘fatally wounded’ Abubakar Shekau in his shoulders..

29 August: The NAF conducts air strikes on Tumbun Rego, Abadam LGA, Borno State ‘4-6km’ from the targets attacked the last time.

30 August: The NAF spokesman publicly announces the previous days airstrike stating it was targeted using ‘intelligence to neutralize.. suspected leaders of the sect’

05 September: Ahmed Salkida returns to Nigeria from UAE and is detained

07 September: Ahmed Salkida is released. Media reports of fighting between different Boko Haram factions in Abadam LGA near Lake Chad

Factions and fissures:

Assuming that Shekau’s faction is mostly based in or around Sambisa Forest whilst al Barnawi is thought to be in the Lake Chad Region of Abadam, Mobbar or Kukuwa LGA, it would appear that the NAF attempted to destroy the leadership of both factions simultaneously, begging the question; How did the security forces establish the whereabouts of both sets of key leaders? Several options include;

  • The Al Barnawi and Shekau factions in their haste to respond to and counter each other’s propaganda left sufficient clues in their respective media messages to allow the security forces to identify their respective locations.
  • Al Barnawi and Shekau did not follow their normal security precautions when releasing their messages allowing the security forces to track them back to source.
  • One or both factions betrayed the other
  • Security force agents within these groups provided intelligence that identified enemy positions
  • IDPs or captured persons provided information that helped the security forces identify targets
  • The security forces had an existing intelligence operation which bore fruit and the timing is coincidental

In considering these scenarios, what is most interesting is that in all the announcements afterwards the military was keen to emphasise the use of human intelligence in developing their targets.

This is curious as human intelligence is one of the hardest forms of intelligence to obtain, develop and maintain especially within a group like Boko Haram, thus any hints or mentions could compromise the asset.

If one assumes these mentions were deliberate then it opens another window of enquiry, that;

  • The security forces do not have human assets but wish to give Boko Haram the impression that they had traitors in their midst in order to foment internal dissent and cause the leadership devote time and energy to ferreting out the spy and hopefully kill a few of their own.
  • The security forces wish to give each Boko Haram faction the impression that they were betrayed by the other
  • The information was obtained through other means such as signals or foreign intelligence etc. and the security forces wish to disguise this fact.
  • The security forces have human assets in Boko Haram but believe they are sufficiently secure
  • The security forces have human assets in Boko Haram and don’t care what happens to them

Another interesting consideration is that these strikes and the assertions of human intelligence came after the Bolori and Wakil voluntarily went into the security forces and were subsequently released. It could again be the intention of the security forces to discredit these persons in the eyes of Boko Haram and make it appear as they were the sources.

While the mechanics of these actions are open to speculation, the intent seems fairly clear, in that whilst the Federal Government has publicly professed a desire to negotiate with Boko Haram particularly over the GSS Chibok abductees, the security forces have attempted an aggressive decapitation strategy and attempted to eliminate the leadership of Boko Haram.

Whether this is a deliberate strategy to talk while attacking, an aggressive negotiating tactic or the military conducting rogue operations, it is relevant to ask if removing Boko Harams senior leadership is necessarily effective?

Headless Chickens

Of the little that is publicly known of Boko Haram’s structure it is assumed to consist of different groups and factions, with fighters based in different camps commanded by Amirs, each answerable to their leaders who nominally should be subject to Boko Harams Shura council (if it still exists).

Whilst there is likely to be a centralised source of funds, fuel, vehicles and weapons, it is also likely that individual Amirs in the widely dispersed these camps would be responsible for sustaining their troops and the more successful ones who bring in large amounts of stores such as weapons, foods, money, vehicles or captives would have larger camps with more troops and command more immediate loyalty from their subordinates.

The loyalty of these mid-level Amirs to their Senior commanders would also be tied to patronage as much as moral or ideological drivers, with the senior commanders’ access to finance, military supplies and military or leadership skills critical in maintaining the loyalty of subordinate commanders.

Thus these relationships would necessarily be strained particularly in straitened times, when the foot soldiers, junior and mid level commanders face defeat and deprivation of a daily basis, leading to the question as to what the effect of the loss of senior leaders would have on the group.

Historically the removal of leaders in well established criminal, terror, insurgent or rebel groups has 2 effects; somebody else steps forward to fill the gap or the groups fragment into smaller, harder to detect groups that tend to fight themselves as much as their common enemy.

In the former case those leaders who step up fall into roughly 3 categories, a compromise candidate who does not threaten any else in pool of commanders he was elevated from, the most ruthless who is willing to go further than others for the position or the most capable; a natural leader others wish to follow.

In reasonably well disciplined groups such as the IRA, Taliban or AQIM, the loss of a key leader would not immediately fragment the group, as the military, tribal and religious structures in place ensure a new commander (even if he is less skilled, popular or capable) continues where the old one left off.

In less disciplined groups the loss of a leader generally leads to fragmentation with other mid level leaders forming power bases around themselves, whilst other actors seek to take advantage of the chaos by attacking them, stronger commanders who have access to better resources, are better led or more ruthless will seek to absorb others or neutralise those that constitute a threat.


For a group like Boko Haram- facing deprivation and defeat in the field, a lack of popular support with a large number of forced conscripts seeking to escape, mercenaries, criminals and opportunists as well as true believers, with multiple factions and alternative power centres-the loss of their key leaders would probably lead to a certain level of fragmentation, until a leader who either has the skill or charisma to lead or else the necessary contacts with the supply chain is able to rise above the fray and either reunite the faction or simply lead the most dominant faction.

In the case of Shekau’s faction, there is an argument that such a psychotic personality would have eliminated any such persons (which the audio tapes seem to support) leaving commanders beneath him who are either similar in personality, conditioned to behave in an equally blood thirsty manner or sufficiently weak to be non threatening to him.

In the case of al Barnawi’s (who attempts to present a ‘more reasonable face’ of the insurgency), propaganda videos show his commanders preaching and engaging with fighters, indicating a different sort of command environment and personality, however his links to Daesh could mean fighters fleeing Libya could join up with his faction creating a foreign fighter element and possibly challenging the local commanders for authority. Control of the lucrative Lake Chad Region trade and smuggling routes could also incentivise mid to junior commanders to attempt to go it alone.

In either case it can be argued that removing Boko Harams key leadership could present opportunities to fragment Boko Haram and encourage fratricide allowing the security forces to destroy them in detail whilst the survivors struggle with finding new leaders and supply lines.

It could also be argued that removing Boko Harams leadership creates new threats as new combat hardened leaders unbound by old ties or orthodoxies rise through the ranks. Shekau protégés could be equally as bloodthirsty and without his baggage could forge new alliances or gain popular support. The death of al Barnawi could open the door to Daesh fighters fleeing Libya to set up in the Lake Chad Basin. Even if the factions fragment, these smaller groups under experienced leaders could continue the insurgency or simply evolve into another group or migrate around the country or region creating chaos.

The Federal Government and security forces are thus playing a risky game, professing to be interested in negotiation whilst discrediting the only credible go between and attacking the enemies leadership. This  could either be a strong armed negotiating tactic, a carrot and stick approach or a relentless military solution with the fig leaf of negotiations.

A headless chicken can run around spraying blood everywhere for a long time before the chicken actually realises its dead.

About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Counter insurgency, Defence, Geopolitics, Nigeria Defence, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Cutting the Head off the Chicken: Decapitation Operations in North East Nigeria

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