Abu Musab al Barnawi: Ideals vs. Reality

By Omar S Mahmood

April 19th, 2017

At the time of the August 2016 split, Abu Musab al-Barnawi and his associates served more in an opposition role, expressing discontent regarding the group’s trajectory or practices, and promising change. Yet like any opposition leader suddenly thrust into power and given decision-making functions, the realities of control contrast to the ideals expressed while in opposition. This common struggle typically results in a degree of pragmatism and moderation on behalf of the opposition candidate, in turn preventing the full implementation of the principles previously advocated. This in turn is a likely explanation for the recent string of incidents involving the Barnawi faction, and a worrying trend for civilians continuing to live in proximity to his forces.

The Abu Musab al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram has recently been accused of abusing local civilian populations in northeast Nigeria. Food and medical supplies have been looted, civilians have been executed for refusing extortion payments and under suspicion of working for the government, and nearly two dozen young girls have reportedly been kidnapped. Nonetheless, local residents have also acknowledged that the group does not engage in indiscriminate targeting nor seeks to destroy local possession, aspects which have become a hallmark of Abubakar Shekau’s punitive violence towards civilians. Nonetheless, while the faction may not be operating in as predatory a manner as that of Shekau, recent events suggest that the realities of survival have likely begun to triumph over some of the more idealistic notions initially espoused by Barnawi upon his assumption of power back in August 2016.

Based on his messaging, a large part of Barnawi’s discontent revolved around Shekau’s propensity for attacks that resulted in Muslim civilian casualties. Aside from shifting these attack patterns, however, Barnawi’s leadership likely sought to more broadly alter Boko Haram’s operational processes, in a bid to reset group relations with the local civilian populace.

One key issue lies in the targeting of civilians who support vigilante organizations. Barnawi threatened the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), just as Shekau did before him. Nonetheless, it is important to recall that under Shekau the targeting of civilian vigilante forces escalated quickly after their public emergence in mid-2013. Initially restricted to the vigilantes themselves, violence spiraled to indiscriminate attacks on villages where the CJTF had been set up, and eventually to civilians from Borno state at large, with the group deeming all from the state as culpable supporters. While Boko Haram violence prior to this also resulted in civilian deaths, the advent of large-scale attacks aimed at destroying entire villages emerged out of these dynamics. As an illustration of this extension of violence, a 2015 report from Amnesty International described Boko Haram massacres directed at towns with CJTF units like Gwoza and Bama, while others without a vigilante presence were largely spared.

In Barnawi’s messaging, he has made clear that those who participate in a conspiracy against Islam are legitimate targets, and Muslim vigilantes would qualify in this sense, given their close relations with the government. Yet the question remains as to where Barnawi will draw the line – given that vigilantes are so entrenched at this point in the region and rely on the support of many local communities, will those all communities be found guilty by association?

The wholesale targeting of civilians under Shekau did not emerge in a vacuum, but was tied changes in the local environment and a desire to intimidate those supporting the vigilantes. With Barnawi facing the same dynamics and a likely desire to curb the CJTF’s activities, will he be able to continue to stick to his original ideals to avoid Muslim civilian casualties? Or are the recent executions of three civilians under suspicion of working with the government (along with another for refusing to abide by group demands regarding a forced protection tax), more suggestive of the slippery slope Shekau once faced, and reminiscent of his initially limited targeting of just those considered to be informants?

Another big aspect is in terms of recruitment. The rise in civilian soft targeting by Boko Haram in 2013 coincided with an increase in forced recruitment, as resentment spread given Boko Haram’s attacks on the local populace. This chipped away at the sympathy gained following the Nigerian Government’s heavy-handed crackdown on group members in 2009, and resulted in less willing recruits. To address this manpower shortage, the movement increasingly engaged in forced recruitment, with one estimate of as many as to 10,000 young boys abducted over the past three years.

Barnawi promised to end attacks that kill Muslims in the region may have been tied to expectations of increased recruitment, as his movement seeks to end the practice of targeting the same populace from which it hopes to draw membership. Nonetheless, Barnawi’s focus on more large-scale direct engagements with security forces requires a high number of well-trained fighters to be successful, much more so than asymmetric attacks like suicide bombings. In addition, conducting these sorts of attacks will likely will result in a high turnover rate given the increased risk of casualties. For example, the June 2016 attack targeting military structures in Nigerien town of Bosso was a significant short-term success, but also resulted in the death of 55 militants.

While Shekau apparently did not have major qualms about forced recruitment, the increase use of that practice intertwined with addressing a shortfall in willing adherents. In contrast, an initial Barnawi decision to reportedly let some hostages go after a clash with Shekau’s fighters, suggested that he was less apt to rely on such dynamics, falling in line with his overall vision to lessen the pernicious effects of his movement’s struggle on the local Muslim population. But if willing recruitment does not meet required levels, will Barnawi be forced to renegotiate his stance given on-the-ground realities?

The recent abduction of women suggests his group is not as adverse to forced conscription as initially expected (in contrast, some Barnawi’s members have even been surrendering recently – though it is unclear if that involves a daring escape from the group or not). Whether this will eventually extend beyond the hitherto isolated incidents remains to be seen, but the decision to ignore forced conscription when it comes to women, is not an encouraging sign for an eventual spread of that tactic to men as well.

Another aspect concerns preying off the local population, a matter in which the Shekau group has become particularly well versed. Food, medicine, livestock, and other supplies are frequently raided from local populations as a necessity for survival. This predatory relationship flies in the face of Barnawi’s attempts to win the civilian populace back over to his side, but his fighters find themselves living in similar remote rural areas as well, with need for the same basic supplies. Such demands can adjust a prospective no-looting policy, which recent incidents seem to indicate. While not conducted as violently as Shekau, the looting of food and other supplies is an example another a likely ideal being adjusted, as reality sets in for the young factional leader.

Boko Haram proved to be a highly adaptable group under Shekau, responding to shifting dynamics in their operating environment. Yet, while many of these adaptations were effective, they also came at a destructive cost to the local population. As the Barnawi movement faces the prospect of having to make decisions that ensures the survival of his group, will such realities result in a compromise of his ideals, to the detriment of those living in the Lake Chad Basin region? Or will he be able to find a way to maintain a degree of effectiveness, while holding true to his initial messaging? Recent events appear to suggest that while attempting to preserve the latter, the former may be winning out.

Omar S Mahmood is a researcher at ISS in the Peace and Security Programme. Before joining the ISS, Omar worked as an international security consultant focused on the Lake Chad Basin and Horn of Africa regions; a senior analyst for a Washington DC-based consulting firm; and a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso.

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