I’ve never been more optimistic about the end of Boko Haram. Major developments over the past five months suggest that this repugnant group has reached the point of no return on its road to final disintegration and annihilation. Abubakar Shekau died in May at the hands of fighters of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the faction of the group loyal to the so-called Islamic State; since then, hundreds of members have died in the inter-factional warfare that is still raging and thousands have deserted the group. And now, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISWAP’s leader who gloated over Shekau’s death, has been murdered by Shekau fighters. This is already extremely ugly. But the worse it gets for Boko Haram, the better for Nigeria and Nigerians.
Following Shekau’s death, ISWAP issued a slick video in which it claimed to have reunified Boko Haram under al-Barnawi. Scores of commanders were shown praising God for the development and threatening those of us who they brand as disbelievers and hypocrites. While several analysts and journalists believed ISWAP and said the group is growing stronger, I tweeted my reservations writing that the video looked to me like “PURE propaganda”. My reasons were simple: No leaders of JAS (the Shekau faction) spoke in the video, which only showed foot soldiers giving bay’a to ISWAP, and by extension ISIS.
We soon discovered that it was indeed a calculated misinformation. The Bakura group, a JAS contingent active on the islands of Lake Chad, issued a rebuttal of ISWAP’s claim, in which it vowed to continue to fight ISWAP. Reports of clashes and casualties from both sides kept coming in. From mid-September, news of the most important fatality ever on ISWAP’s side began to trickle in. But stories that al-Barnawi had been killed felt too good to be true even as it was reported by multiple sources, so I chose to remain reticent. As more reliable accounts and sources corroborated the news, this paper confirmed the story.
But it took the Nigerian military almost two months to speak officially on the issue. During a ministerial briefing at the Presidential Villa last week, the Chief Defence Staff (CDS) told newsmen that “I can authoritatively confirm to you that Abu Musab is dead. As simple as that. He is dead and remains dead”. It is a great pity that the Nigerian army took this long to confirm this development, which has been at least rumoured for over a month. It never ceases to amaze me how analysts and reporters in and outside Nigeria – some not even Nigerians – get reliable information on internal developments in Boko Haram more quickly than the army fighting them.
That the army is still afraid to confirm Shekau’s death over five months after the event, lest they get it wrong as they have many times before, is another example that speaks volumes on the failures of Nigeria’s government intelligence. Conversely, Boko Haram is always proactive with negative information intended to demoralise our troops and our country. One example came last April when Boko Haram published a footage of a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) jet that disappeared, after the NAF had spent days sending mixed messages about what happened. The NAF might have been right that the plane crashed due to technical error, but Boko Haram’s version made the headlines because they had a video evidence. The war against Boko Haram and similar groups across the globe is not only a battle of arms but also of ideas. It is as much – if not more – about controlling the narrative as it is about physical combat. Continually playing catch up with the informational warfare is simply a service to the enemy.
The CDS didn’t go into details of how, when and where al-Barnawi died, possibly because he doesn’t know. But multiple sources on the ground, including some that spoke to this paper, say he was injured in a duel with Shekau fighters sometime in September and died from his wounds. Al-Barnawi, whose real name was Habib ibn Muhammad Yusuf, was Boko Haram founder’s oldest son. He became ISWAP’s leader for a second time earlier this year, a post he held from 2016 but was demoted in 2019. With Nur, Shekau and now al-Barnawi gone, Boko Haram will never be Boko Haram again. Even if the group were united, there is simply no one with the charisma, knowledge, experience, deceptive skills and recognition to replace these fallen villains, and Boko Haram cannot appeal to young people as it did in its heyday.
This is also a blow to ISIS’ operations in our region. In the wake of Shekau’s death, al-Barnawi issued several messages celebrating Shekau’s death and laying out his vision to reposition ISWAP. He said ISIS, which re-installed him as leader, ordered him to kill Shekau and gave him detailed guidelines on changes to ISWAP that would make it more effective and strengthen ISIS’s grip on the Lake Chad region. We may hope that this is a severe set-back to that goal.
But there is even better news: Boko Haram’s civil conflict rages on. This war started in 2016 when the group splintered, and has so far killed over a thousand members including senior leaders. In an unprecedented move, ISWAP released footage of fighting with JAS last month. The video, which showed 29 Shekau combatants captured by ISWAP, featured a masked commander who called JAS’s members Khawarij (Kharijites) that should be killed. He warned JAS to release ISWAP loyalists in their custody before ISWAP comes for them. As a man of faith, I believe this chaos is simply God’s intervention in answer to the collective prayer of the millions of families devastated by Boko Haram. Let’s keep praying.
The infighting, hunger and military pressure in Boko Haram’s territory has triggered an unprecedented wave of defections from the terror group. Since Shekau’s death five month ago, over 8,000 members have handed themselves into authorities in Nigeria and Cameroon. A small portion of these were fighters in the group, further depleting the group’s ranks. Even the defection of civilians is a blow to Boko Haram, not least because, having been deserted by people who previously believed in the group’s prototype state, the belief of even the most committed members in the Boko Haram project will be shaken.
But let’s not get complacent. There is a lot of work still to do. Boko Haram remains a threat. Even last Monday, ISWAP released photos of a raid in which it claimed to have killed 10 Nigerian soldiers. The last 12 years have shown us that the group can weather storms and bounce back; we can’t let this happen this time around. The security and intelligence pressure on the group needs to be escalated and sustained. Along with this, the non-military efforts against Boko Haram must continue long after its physical defeat. This requires getting all of our 10 million children into schools and reforming our educational system to teach skills relevant for the 21st century and inculcate open-mindedness and civility in disagreement. Clerics and organisations countering the group should be supported and the socio-economic conditions that birthed the monster must be confronted in a strategic and sustained way.