July 11, 2017
Boko Haram had a busy Ramadan in 2017, which reflected one of the group’s more successful recent thirty-day spans in terms of violence.
In total, at least thirty-nine different attacks attributed to the group occurred, the highest monthly total this year (although April and January were close). Ramadan started off slow, with just six attacks in the first ten days, before the group engaged in near-daily violence the rest of the time.
Of the thirty-nine attacks, 25 involved suicide bombers – nearly two out of every three incidents. In fact, the number of suicide incidents is the most ever recorded in a one-month span, an indication of the group’s mystifying ability not just to maintain, but even increase, capabilities in this regard.
These attacks included at least 38 total bombers, as 14 incidents involved multiple bombers, with as many as four at once. While many Boko Haram suicide attacks have largely been ineffective recently – confined to the outskirts of urban areas and few casualties, especially of civilians – Ramadan reversed this trend. At least 55 civilians were killed, or more than two per attack (compared to 9 total civilians killed on 13 attacks in May). While casualty counts are difficult to track and impossible to guarantee complete accuracy, it is clear that the lethality to civilians of this type of violence increased (though centering around a few specific incidents, in which the group was able to exploit some security vulnerabilities).
In terms of location, 18 of the total Ramadan incidents occurred in northern Cameroon (predominately in the Mayo Sava department) while 20 were in Borno state, and one in Chad. Half of those in Borno occurred in or on the outskirts of Maiduguri, symbolizing the group’s continued fascination with the movement’s birthplace. Many of these occurred in two primary areas of the city – its eastern and southeastern flanks, a likely indication of the Shekau faction’s responsibility given his group’s purported hideouts in areas to the south and southeast of the Borno state capital (such as Sambisa Forest).
In terms of the factional nature of the violence, it appears the vast majority of recorded incidents over Ramadan likely derive from the Shekau faction. The use of suicide bombers, the targeting of civilians, and the geographic concentration of violence along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and in south-central Borno all point to Shekau’s responsibility.
Nonetheless, the Barnawi faction is reportedly also present in areas of south-central Borno state, and little information emerges from its presumed northern Borno state strongholds around Guzamala and Abadam local government areas (LGAs), so it is difficult to say how operational the group has been recently. The major 24 June 2017 battle with Chadian security forces along some islands in Lake Chad is the clearest indication of a likely Barnawi faction violence (and was later claimed in the Islamic State weekly publication Al Naba), but the majority of the incidents in the dataset more closely correspond to Shekau’s operational methods.
The Shekau faction also followed up its two biggest Ramadan attacks – an invasion of the Jiddari Polo neighborhood in Maiduguri, and an assault on a convoy of vehicles traveling from Maiduguri along Damboa road in which several female police officers were reportedly abducted, with video messaging claiming the incidents, serving to capitalize on the propaganda value of their success. In fact, both incidents represent somewhat of a recent increase of capabilities for a group constantly claimed to be on the decline. The convoy consisted of 200 vehicles and was protected by both the Nigerian army and police, while the Jiddari Polo incident represented Boko Haram’s first “invasion” of Maiduguri in nearly two years (in addition one of its deepest recent penetrations of the city).
These two incidents, combined with the increase in suicide attack lethality and continued indications after Ramadan of sustained capabilities (such as the first suicide attack in Niger in 1.5 years and repeated suicide violence in northern Cameroon), are patent signs that the movement is far from being defeated. In fact, the increased levels of violence targeting Maiduguri since late last year is another indication that events like the “fall” of Sambisa Forest may result in pushing the militants around more than eliminating them, with some of this now coming closer to the Borno state capital. There is an ebb and flow nature to this violence, but it seems the movement has been able to regroup after military pressure in some fashion.
It also begs the question as to how the movement was able to enjoy such success during this month? Boko Haram is still a far cry from what it was a few years ago when it controlled much of Borno state and beyond, but Ramadan 2017 indicates that it is far from a spent force, and rather one capable of constant adaption. The shifts the group made have helped increase the effectiveness of its suicide attacks, while demonstrating a consistent supply of both bombers and explosive materials. Security actors must consider these dynamics and respond with constantly innovate tactics as well – the recent announcement that the University of Maiduguri, a frequent target in past months, will start digging trenches around unfenced parts of the campus is a good start. But as Ramadan 2017 indicated, more measures are needed, and despite some previously positive trends, it will be unwise to relax when it comes to security in the Lake Chad region any time soon.
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.
By Rida Lyammouri,
August 8th, 2016
Key points of the interview based on Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (Habeeb Bin Muhamed Bin Youssef al-Barnawi) comments:
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Rida Lyammouri
July 6th, 2016
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
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.