In September, reports emerged that one of Boko Haram’s longstanding leaders, Mamman Nur, was assassinated. His killers were not from the Nigerian military, which had long pursued him. The Nigerian government first declared Nur wanted after he allegedly masterminded the suicide bombing at the UN building in Abuja in August 2011, killing 23 people (Vanguard, September 19, 2011). Rather, Nur’s killers were from his own group—the Islamic State-loyal faction of Boko Haram, which is called Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). It was not an ordinary assassination; it was fratricide.
Why would ISWAP members kill Mamman Nur? He was, after all, one of the group’s leading preachers alongside the group’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, before the group launched the current phase of the jihad in July 2009. Ironically, the current ISWAP leader himself, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, is Muhammed Yusuf’s son. Nur was also widely reported to have set up Boko Haram training camps in Cameroon in 2010 and to have led up to 90 Boko Haram members in training with al-Shabab in 2010 before they returned to Nigeria in 2011 (Treasury.gov, December 1, 2015; Vanguard, September 3, 2011). Boko Haram forewarned its first suicide bombing at the Federal Police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011 by stating in an interview with AFP before the attack that the group’s “brothers returned from Somalia where they trained in real warfare” (AFP, June 15, 2011). Presumably, Nur’s trainees and network were involved in the attack.
Nur was also involved in campaigning to convince Islamic State to drop Abubakar Shekau from the ISWAP leadership position, which led the Islamic State to name Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi as the new ISWAP leader in August 2016 (Soundcloud.com, August 5, 2016). Nur had complained about Shekau’s excessive use of takfir (excommunication) and alleged Shekau violated Islamic State’s orders by keeping Muslim schoolgirls as “slaves”, including some from the infamous Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in April 2014. Nur, in fact, stated that Islamic State ordered Muslim women to be killed if they were apostates but not held as “slaves.” Nur also accused Shekau of stealing from civilians, being a megalomaniac, and killing sub-commanders for unproven or minor infractions.
Early Nur-Shekau Disputes
Mamman Nur and Abubakar Shekau engaged in disputes since as early as Muhammed Yusuf’s death in July 2009. A Nur loyalist who worked in the house of Babakura Fugu, who was the brother-in-law of Muhammed Yusuf, for example, reportedly assassinated Fugu in 2011 (Vanguard, September 19, 2011). Fugu was scheduled to meet the Borno state deputy governor for the second time before he was assassinated. He had also provided documents to former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to give to then president Goodluck Jonathan related to negotiations to end the budding Boko Haram insurgency. At least one of the terms of a deal would have been government compensation to the Fugu family for the killing of Muhammed Yusuf.
The precise timing of Fugu’s assassination was also suspect: he had just finished a pre-interview phone call with Sahara Reporters media agency in which he had begun discussing the origins of the group during the period shari’a law implemented in northern Nigeria between 1999 and 2001 (Sahara Reporters, September 18, 2011). In any event, although a Nur loyalist was the assassin, Shekau was reported to have opposed Fugu’s assassination. Shekau believed the Fugu family had the right to seek any redress for Muhammed Yusuf’s killing (Vanguard, September 19, 2011).
In subsequent years, Nur had been involved in separate negotiations with the government (Treasury.gov, December 1, 2015; Vanguard, November 5, 2012). Nur loyalists also considered him more to be more qualified to lead Boko Haram than Shekau because of his contacts in Somalia and to al-Qaeda (Vanguard, September 3, 2011). Shekau, in contrast, is not known to have spent significant time, or any time at all, with jihadists abroad. Since 2013,Shekau also has been adamant that Boko Haram would not negotiate with the Nigerian government (Vanguard, November 10, 2014). Shekau disclaimed any negotiators who claimed to be acting on behalf of Boko Haram.
Nevertheless, on tactical issues—not broader peace deals— such as the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping, Shekau was reluctant but willing to negotiate. In 2016, he approved the release of more than 100 of the schoolgirls for a reported ransom and the release of at least five Boko Haram prisoners (Punch.ng, December 24, 2017)). Aside from the freed schoolgirls, 112 have remained missing, several dozen died in captivity and the others have “chosen” to remain with their Boko Haram “husbands”.
ISWAP’s Extreme Turn
The assassination of Nur was followed by ISWAP’s assassination of another ISWAP commander, Ali Gaga. He was a cattle herder who joined ISWAP in 2015 and was reportedly planning to surrender with up to 300 ISWAP hostages. Nur, therefore, is believed to have been killed for similar reasons as Ali Gaga—becoming a “traitor” and discussing through mediators “peace talks” with the government (Premium Times, September 30). Nur’s assassination also comes in the context of ISWAP’s release of over 100 Muslim schoolgirls kidnapped in March in Dapchi, Yobe State by ISWAP hardliners. Those schoolgirls were released after Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, supported by Nur, demanded their release on grounds that ISWAP does not kidnap and “enslave” Muslims (The Guardian, March 21). Only one of those schoolgirls was kept in captivity, Leah Sharibu, because she is a Christian and refused conversion to Islam.
According to the Chief Military Press Information Officer of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in N’Djamena, Chad, Nur has been replaced by a “Shekau type of terrorist,” Muhammed Kirmimma (ZYen.com.ng, October 8). Kirmimma is second-in-command in ISWAP behind Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. What this means is that there is increasingly little difference between ISWAP and Shkau’s faction of Boko Haram. Although Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi loyalists under the military command of Abu Fatima defeated Shekau loyalists after al-Barnawi was announced as ISWAP leader in August 2016, now it appears Shekau is gaining strength in his rivalry with al-Barnawi (Aymennjawad.org, August 5). Shekau could make a renewed attempt at taking over the reins of ISWAP from Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi or may seek some form of merger with Kirmimma, possibly facilitated by Islamic State’s overall leadership, which would like ISWAP to be unified.
The latest evidence of ISWAP’s ultra-extremism is its filmed executions of two women, Saifura Ahmed and Hauwa Liman, in September and October, respectively. They were both humanitarian workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Rann, Borno State and were kidnapped in March. According to ISWAP:
Saifura and Hauwa were killed because they are considered as murtads (apostates) by the group because they were once Muslims that have abandoned their Islam the moment they chose to work with the Red Cross, and for us, there is no difference between Red Cross and UNICEF.
ISWAP also noted Leah Sharibu would become a “slave for life” and Alice Ngaddah, a Christian who worked with UNICEF in Rann, would also be kept as a slave. According to ISWAP, “Based on our doctrines, it is now lawful for us to do whatever we want to do with them” (Thecable.ng, October 15). Indeed, it is not certain Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi would have opposed killing Saifura Ahmed and Hauwa Liman, for he declared when he became the ISWAP leader that the group would target “Christian proselytizing organizations”, which includes ICRC and UNICEF (Al-Naba 41, August 2, 2016). ISWAP is also abiding to its previous commitment to the Islamic State to “enslave” Christians but kill Muslim “apostates”.
If Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi represents the “moderate” side of ISWAP and he is still this extreme, one can expect increased atrocities from the group. In light of Nur’s assassination, he will also pressured by hardliners in ISWAP to accept some of their more brutal operations and tactics and to avoid any tactical-level or broader negotiations with the Nigerian government. After several recent successful attacks on military barracks in northeastern Nigeria, ISWAP is sufficiently armed to continue to wage the insurgency for months, if not years ahead. This indicates that the war with the Nigerian state will grind on and that civilians will increasingly become targets for ISWAP whether for “apostasy” or, in the case of Christians, “slavery”. ISWAP, however, may come to a thaw in its rivalry with Shekau and possibly increase coordination with his faction, although this is not something Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi would want. He nonetheless may be beholden to his hardliners on this issue as well.