Category Archives: Boko Haram

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.

Nigeria: Comprehensive summary of Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi interview in English

By Rida Lyammouri,

August 8th, 2016

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Key points of the interview based on Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (Habeeb Bin Muhamed Bin Youssef al-Barnawi) comments:

  • Motivation behind pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS) was seeing strength fighting as one and in unity.
  • The real name of the group was never Boko Haram, it’s a nickname given by western media to discredit the group. The real name was given after the founder, Sheikh Youssef al-Barnawi was killed and Shekau became head of the group. The original name is Jamaatu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Daawati wal-Jihad.
  • The group did send its fighters to the Sahara for military training, but al-Barnawi did not specify where and the group that provided the training.
  • Western forces are providing support to coalition forces fighting ISWAP/Boko Haram but have no boots on the ground.
  • Al-Barnawi said the group does not approve or authorize attacks on mosques and markets killing Muslims. Said members for their own personal interests carry these attacks.
  • Al-Barnawi said operations against ISWAP are run from joint operation room in Niger, and when they decide to attack, French and US send surveillance drones from their bases in Niger to locate us. Then joint African forces will carry an on ground assault backed by heavy air support.
  • Narrative of al-Barnawi focuses on accusing Western countries and Christians of having hidden agendas behind their humanitarian work and helping refugees.
  • Al-Barnawi claims increased number of fighters among ISWAP is due to the victories achieved by IS elsewhere. Injustice applied by local government (s) also claimed to be another reason.

Comprehensive Summary of the Interview

Note: This is not a word-by-word translation but rather a comprehensive summary of all talking points while leaving unnecessary comments out. Also this does not represent my views.

For good analysis about what this means please read Ryan Cummings commentary here.

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Nigeria: Summary of Abubakar Shekau video in response to appointing Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi

By Rida Lyammouri,

August 8th, 2016

On August 7th Jamaatu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Daawati wal-Jihad or better known as Boko Haram released a new video in response to the appointment of Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who is real name is Habeeb Bin Muhamed Bin Youssef al-Barnawi, as new emir of Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). The video came few days after an exclusive interview conducted by Abu Mus’ab to al-Nab’a, Islamic State newspaper, released on August 3rd.

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First speaker surrounded by Boko Haram fighters.  

Boko Haram video was little over 24 minutes long and featured Abubakar Shekau. The first speaker spoke in both, Arabic and Hausa, directing his speech to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and to African and Western forces.

He initially focused on the appointment of Abu Mus’ab al-Barnanwi. The speaker said the group reached out to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eight times to warn about the commitment of al-Barnawi to the application of al-Sunna but never received any response. He then said that were surprised, just like the rest of the world, about appointing al-Barnawi and removing Shekau. Speaking on behalf of Shekau and his followers, the speaker confirmed they are committed and remain faithful to Shekau while still loyal to IS at the same time. Their decision is based on their loyalty to Shekau but also they don’t see al-Barnawi fit to lead them. Furthermore, the speaker talked about other issues that need to be addressed in private with al-Baghdadi without giving any indications.

Speaker then added the group will remain determined in its fight against its ennemies, referring to Nigeria and neighboring countries, and to their Western allies. Speaker directly threatened Nigeria by naming Abuja, the capital, as the main target. The first speaker then concluded by translating the same speech in Hausa.

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Shekau during the video.

In hist part, Shekau stated that the fight against infidels is just starting against Nigeria, United States, France, Germany, and United Nations. Also hinted that he does not plan to fight his brothers, referring to Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. He then made it clear that he is the emir of Jamaatu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Daawati wal-Jihad or Boko Haram not only in Nigeria, but in the whole world.

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Video featured hundred of armed fighters.

Mali: July 2016 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, and Other Security Incidents

By Rida Lyammouri

August 1st, 2016

Violent extremist organizations (VEOs) operating in Mali remained active and operational in Mali throughout the month of July, especially Ansar al-Din. Attacks conducted in Mali were mainly carried by Ansar al-Din, targeting mostly the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Malian forces. This trend will most likely continue in coming weeks and months in efforts to undermine national and international efforts to stabilize the country. Malian forces suffered one of the deadliest attacks since 2012 when a joint operation by more than one group targeted Malian Army base at Nampala near Mauritanian borders. The incident further demonstrated both the ability of groups to conduct deadly attacks and to demonstrate that Malian Army remains unable to to prevent such attacks. The use of improvised explosive device (IED) remains the main tactic to target Malian and foreign forces, while targeting MINUSMA logistical convoys is in increase with the aim to disrupt peacekeeping operations.

Month of July was also bad in regards the implementation of the peace process. In July 12th, demonstrations by local population opposed to the process in Gao turned violent when Malian forces fired at protestors killing 3 and injuring more than 30. In July 21st fighting erupted between in Kidal between GATIA and CMA, two key actors in the Algiers peace accord. Further violent clashes also took place in July 31st indicating that violence and use of arms remain the strong negotiations language.

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Images of Islamist militants in northern Mali released by al-Mourabitun of AQIM arm media al-Ribat.

Key July Security Events and Trends in Mali:

  • AQIM branch Grand Sahara announced the death of one of its senior commanders, Abu Bakr al-Shenkiti (Mohamed al-Radhi). This is a major loss to the group because of Abu Bakr’s extensive experience fighting in Mali since joining AQIM in 2009.
  • Malian forces arrested on July 26th Ansar al-Din Macina brigade leader identified as Mahmoud Barry (aka Cheick Yahya). Cheick Yahya reported to have played key role in the Nampala attack, and was arrested between Nampala and Dogofri. He made its first public appearance in a first video released by the same brigade May 18th.
  • Malian forces arrested on July 19th key leader of Ansar al-Din southern brigade, Boubacar Wardogo. Wardogo is from Burkina Faso and was leading Ansar al-Din branch operating along Burkina Faso and Mali borders. His brigade was responsible for number of attacks conducted on both sides of the borders. This arrest was a result of investigations that followed the arrest of Yacouba Touré, another key Ansar al-Din figure in the south who was arrested in May.
  • AQIM claimed 0n July 21st responsibility of kidnapping then assassinating High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) senior commander at Ber. Commander was identified as Alhassane Ag Intoua, and was taken from Ber on June 20th. Also, AQIM sent decapitated body of MNLA member, Efad Ag Arikak taken at Ber on June 6th.
  • Ansar al-Din media arm al-Rimah released an infographic with statistics of the Nampala attack claiming to have seized 5 (12.7mm) Doushka and 5 PK machine guns, more than 40 AKs, 5 vehicles, and important amount of ammunition.
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Ansar al-Din inforgraphic with Nampala attacks statistics.

Chronology of  AQIM, Ansar al-Din, and VEO Related Incidents

01 July 2016: Unknown armed militants attacked Malian gendarmerie post in Ménaka. 2 killed and 1 injured.

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Battle of Niger: Summary and takeaways from Boko Haram/ISWAP video

By Rida Lyammouri

July 6th, 2016

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On July 5th, 2016, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) or better known as Boko Haram, released a 14mn video titled: the Battle of Bosso. Exactly a month ago on June 3th ISWAP militants conducted one of the deadliest attacks on Nigerien forces military base of Bosso, Niger. Video mainly intends to reinforce ISWAP propaganda that regional forces are unable to stop the group from conducting attacks on hard targets and to demonstrate capability of defeating them. Important to note that an initial short video was released June 7th, three days after Bosso attack. However, July 5th video is 12 times longer, has more contents, and much better quality. The video included passages of speeches from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from 2004 to 2006, was killed in June 2006. Continue reading

Niger: Images of displaced population affected by recent Boko Haram violence.

By Rida Lyammouri

June 11, 2015

There are no words to describe what people displaced because of violence related to Boko Haram in SE Niger are going through. This humanitarian tragedy is caused by a group that claims to represent and defend Muslims in Nigeria and neighboring countries. Yet it is causing such harm to innocent people during the holy month of Ramadan. These displaced people are the true Muslims because despite violence and the heat, they are most likely observing the holy month of Ramadan. People are walking miles in 100+ degrees, including women, children, and elders. Access to water is limited and almost non-existent. Keep them in our thoughts during this holy month.

These images speak for themselves and thank you to International Rescue Committee (IRC), International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC), Medecin Sans Frontiere (MSF), OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Niger, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and others who shared these telling images with us through twitter.

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Updated: New Boko Haram leader, Bana Blachera with new agenda?

By Rida Lyammouri

June 9th, 2016

Note: Information is taken mostly from an article published by Le Monde, French newspaper. I summarized the article her for non-French speaking observers and for more exposure to assist audience interested in the issue have clear image of what’s going on.

There are no ways of verifying these important information provided by this article, and most of observers been following conflict for years agreed that Boko Haram expansion claim to CAR or Uganda is baseless and all remain skeptical. This skepticism is also due to previous similar claims with no concrete evidence. Furthermore the author does not provide a substantiate any of his claims, one observer very familiar with the issue. Something we should keep an eye on is the new alleged leader, Bana Blachera.

The fall of Bosso briefly in the hands of Boko Haram doesn’t indicate the group is looking to occupy and govern a territory. According to the article this is more of new strategy within the group under new leadership, and attempt to have access to more weapons, fuel, vehicles, and foodstuff.

Boko Haram or the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) carried series of attacks on Niger. The debate heated again between officials and observers about the seriousness of links between Boko Haram and the so called Islamic State. One answer to these recent attacks could be new leadership among the group trying to establish its trademark. Reportedly, Boko Haram has a new leader. New leader is identified as Bana Blachera, a Cameroonian citizen who joined the group since early days of existence under Mohamed Yusuf in 2002. Bana Blachera reportedly does not have the same religious/ideology drive like Mohamed Yusuf, the charismatic founder of Boko Haram. Unlike Abubakar Shekau, he doesn’t like making media appearances and videos.

Blachera is more of a man who likes to be on the field and carry operations rather than preaching. He made his name within the group by excelling at being the man in charge of logistics. He was in charge of facilitating movement of supplies such as weapons and fuel. Supposedly Blachera seized the opportunity of its leader, Shekau, weakened by an illness to make name for himself. Blachera have made the difference and given to supposedly weakened and defeated group the firepower needed to carry deadly attack on Nigerien Army in Bosso June 3rd. This attack and others on surrounding villages brought back the group to the map for anyone thinking otherwise.

Video released by ISWAP showed important number of well armed fighters of Boko Haram able to defeat a state Army, and forcing them to retreat. With new agenda and intention to expand to other African countries, notably Uganda and Central Africa, Blachera was of key leaders invested in pledging allegiance to the so called Islamic State in 2015. The article stated that the group relies on weapons smuggled from Sudan and Libya.

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Boko Haram / ISWPA fighters in Bosso attack June 3rd. Video released by ISWAP

For the new leadership of Boko Haram, Central African Republic, where the central government has been weakened by war between Anti-Balaka and Seleka, represents an ideal target for recruitment to serve as fallback base. Boko Haram seem also to take advantage of the slow process of collaboration between regional forces to expand into new territories.

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Boko Haram / ISWAP vehicle with mounted machine gun during Bosso attack June 3rd.