Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group infamous for its bombings and abductions, is undergoing something of a makeover.
A key faction that has the backing of so-called Islamic State has renounced its old blood-soaked ways and is trying instead to win hearts and minds in a new strategic twist to a nine-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
To be clear, Abubaker Shekau, the fearsome warlord made legendary by his rantingYouTube performances, has had no such change of heart.
He considers everyone residing outside the “Daulah” – the zone of territory he controls – are “unbelievers”, and therefore legitimate targets of indiscriminate murder. It was partly on this ideological point that the movement split in August 2016 – a schism marked by vicious internecine fighting and the assassination of senior commanders on both sides.
The new Boko Haram faction is led by Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi and his military chief, Mamman Nur. They won the endorsement of IS, which dropped Shekau and picked al-Barnawi as the new “wali”, or governor, of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
In a scathing “open letter” making the case for the division, Nur described Shekau as power drunk, murdering even close associates that oppose him, and reminded him that “takfir (excommunication) should not be dictated by you, because Islam is not your personal possession”.
Shekau, in essence, is deemed too extreme even for IS. His suicide bombings of mosques and markets are seen as not only having dubious scriptural legitimacy, but as being strategically counterproductive – driving support away from the jihadist cause.
Al-Barnawi has sought to delineate that ideological difference with therecent release of a book, co-authored with his younger brother, entitled Cutting out the Tumour from the Khawarij (rebellion) of Shekau by the Allegiance Pledge of the People of Nobility.
Both men are the sons of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and in the book make the case of how far Shekau has strayed from the teachings of their father. (Yusuf was extra-judicially killed by the police in 2009 after he ordered an insurrection in northeastern towns – an event that transformed the Salafist cult into a jihadist movement.)
Never seemingly at ease with the allegiance he swore to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Shekau has resurrected his original Boko Haram label – the organisation’s full name is the “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad” – and hides out somewhere in southern and central Borno State, in land bordering Sambisa Forest and emptying of people.
ISWAP’s new public profile is quite different. They have cultivated the idea that they target solely the security forces, not civilians. Many stories are told of how, in ambushes, captured truck drivers have been taken to their camps, fed, and returned to the road unscathed.
When ISWAP kidnapped 110 schoolgirls in February from Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigerians were stunned when the children were returned within two weeks (with the exception of the sole Christian, Leah Sharibu, and the five other girls killed in the raid).
ISWAP said they had made a mistake in launching the operation, as kidnapping for ransom had been banned by IS central – especially the kidnap of Muslims (although it is still not clear that no money changed hands).
But what shocked Nigerians even more was the celebration that greeted the ISWAP fighters as they returned the girls – with shaky cellphone images going viral of the escort being mobbed in the town’s main street.
Rural Nigeria is generally a conservative place. The jihadist message that the Nigerian government presides over a corrupt, immoral, and unjust system – and that shariah Islamic law is the antidote – is not an alien concept.
What people condemn is the killing of ordinary villagers by Shekau’s Boko Haram to achieve that end, and the tyrannical control exercised by his fighters.
By contrast, ISWAP presents itself as the people’s champions. Al-Barnawi’s men are said to track and kill members of Boko Haram that murder civilians, and reportedly punishes his own fighters that rape.
Although ISWAP taxes villagers, it is also said to undertake community projects like well-digging, aiming to build trust for the movement in the countryside. In the northern Borno region bordering Lake Chad that ISWAP controls, there are reports that it provides alms to internally displaced persons, and soft loans – a tactic once utilised by Boko Haram’s founder, Yusuf, to win converts.
ISWAP is heavily invested in “dawah” (proselytisation) – using Telegram and other secure apps to spread its propaganda. In some government-run displacement camps – all of which are shockingly under-serviced – videos of sermons are surreptitiously shared, to lure people back to ISWAP-held areas. Some show images of well-fed people to counter the government’s narrative of hardship and horror.
This message of well-being may not be entirely far-fetched. In the Lake Chad region, ISWAP is heavily involved in the lucrative fish and bell pepper market, sharing profits with the fishermen and farmers. Al-Barnawi himself is believed to be based on the Island of Tumbu Gini.
Militarily, ISWAP has also proved its ability. It is believed to have been behind an ambush north of the town of Bama in which the Nigerian army reportedly lost 13 out of 16 vehicles in July. Two days later, its fighters overran a 700-man base in Jilli, close to the Chadian border.
This is not a group on its last legs, as the Nigerian government and military has so often insisted. Galled by the setbacks, the high command abruptly replaced the general in charge of the northeast theatre – thefourth change of commander in 14 months.
ISWAP is local but also has a global jihadist connection. The IS link ties it to the insurgencies in Mali and Niger, helping to ensure a flow of weapons south. There are also persistent reports of foreign fighters appearing in its ranks.
Northeast Nigeria is exhausted by conflict. But the less ISWAP looks like Shekau’s oppressive Boko Haram, and can provide some benefits to the rural population, then the greater the number of new recruits it is likely to attract – from fighters to spies.
This then is the new challenge confronting the Nigerian government: how to uproot an insurgency that is seeking to embed itself in the community.
The military’s current operation is called Last Hold – a reflection of the belief that the end is in sight. That confidence may, for the moment, be premature.