On June 6, 2021, the Islamic State (ISIS) confirmed the death of Abubakar Shekau, the notorious commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria, putting an end to two weeks of speculation on whether he was still alive.
Shekau had taken his own life after fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) stormed his headquarters in the Sambisa Forest on May 20. In traditional jihadi fashion, he detonated a suicide vest to kill himself, just like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had done in Syria’s Idlib province back in October 2019.
Al-Barnawi: A Murky Successor
ISWAP is a breakaway faction of Boko Haram that is affiliated to ISIS and headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a long-time rival of Shekau and son of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammad Yusuf. ISWAP, in addition to pronouncing Shekau ’s death, named Barnawi as the new commander of Boko Haram, implying that ISIS has taken control of its parent organization and is planning to merge them.
We know little about Abu Musab al-Barnawi apart from the fact that he was sidelined from leadership of Boko Haram by Shekau, after his father’s execution in 2019. Shekau took control of the group and left him with the ceremonial post of organization spokesman.
A 2019 article in the Saudi Arabian daily Alsharaq Alwsat described Barnawi as a popular young man, still in his twenties. We also know that is liked and respected by the new commander of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi.
Shekau ’s Troubled Relationship with ISIS
Shekau had pledged allegiance to ISIS in mid-2015, only to defect from the group in 2016—although they insist that he was expelled. He had been upset with ISIS for failing to send him arms and money, satisfying itself with only allowing him to raise the black banner of ISIS in Nigeria, a feat that ISIS believes greatly polished his credentials within the international jihadi community, and brought him world attention.
The counterargument says that Shekau had proven too rowdy for ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, refusing to take orders from ISIS Central, carrying out operations that shed senseless blood, without providing any political or military returns. Five years ago, they described him as a “tumor” that ought to be removed, and today added that he was “brutal and did not hesitate to harm and murder innocent people.”
When a man is written off as “murderous” by the most murderous organizations in modern world history, its testimony on just how vicious he had been really been.
During his stint as spokesman for Boko Haram, Abu Musab al-Barnawi learned the ABCs of running a press office, like writing coherent communiques and giving interviews to carefully selected journalists. This time he came out with a statement, sending shivers down the spine of Nigerian security, saying that he had managed to capture 30 of Shekau’s top lieutenants. It is unclear what ISWAP plans to do with these people. Will it execute them? Or will they simply disavow Shekau, claiming that they had been forced to fight with him, against their will. If they do switch sides and join ISWAP, this could make ISIS the single-most powerful jihadi group in Nigeria and beyond. Even before the elimination of Shekau, they were already the main brokers in the country’s jihadi community, thanks to money that has been coming their way from ISIS’ new leader, Abu Ibrahim Qurayshi. Boko Haram remained the most famous of African jihadi groups, due to Shekau ’s brutal operations like kidnapping of schoolchildren and the blowing up schools and churches. But a look at its manpower tells a different story: Boko Haram has anywhere between 1,200-1,500 fighters (many being child soldiers) while ISWAP stands at 5,000 fighters strong.
A big gain for ISWAP is if it manages to control the Sambisa Forest, an area of 6,000 square kilometers across the north and east, along with the mountainous region of Gwoza near the Cameroon border, extending to some parts of Kano, the commercial hub of northern Nigeria. It is precisely because of Shekau ’s control of this area that he managed to survive for so long, using its nature to evade reconnaissance and aerial bombardment by the Nigerian Army. ISWAP already controls the thick Alagarno Forest and Lake Chad, allowing it to now overrun the main highway to Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno. ISWAP is also rooted in the Lake Chad area, treating the local population better than Shekau and often, better than Nigerian officialdom. Unlike the case with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, ISIS in Nigeria does not go about chopping off the heads of civilians, only targeting Nigerian military personnel. It has also helped the local population by digging wells, policing cattle rustling, and providing health care, in addition to a reasonable system of taxation. Residents of areas once under the control of Shekau will not mind—if not welcome—a shift to ISWAP, seeing it as the best of two evils. They pay better, after all, and have a clear jihadi ideology whereas Shekau reigned through terror, with very little financial return for his troops, and was never as committed to Salafi Islam as he often proclaimed in his YouTube videos.
Military, ISWAP has no shortage of fighters, thanks to support from Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS (1,000 fighters), and the ability to poach from powerful African sister groups like the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimin or JNIM (2,000 fighters). Taken together with ISWAP’s 5,000 men, and the 1,500 left to Boko Haram, that means the Sahel is facing a fighting force of approximately 9,500 terrorists, the bulk of them loyal to ISIS. That’s a big challenge for Africa, indeed for any government in any part of the world, and especially for ones with very limited means like that of Nigeria.
But not all of Boko Haram’s warriors will defect and join ISWAP. Many will, fearing that if they refuse then they will be put to the sword. But others will chart their own path, pledging to avenge Shekau ’s death, while trying to produce a field commander who would replace him, challenging, and eventually toppling, Abu Musab al-Barnawi as well.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.