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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Mali: February 2017 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, and Other Security Incidents

By Rida Lyammouri,

March 12th, 2017

Analysis and Comments

  • Sahel MeMo recorded in February 2017 at least 20 incidents related [or at least suspected to be] to violent extremist organizations operating in Mali. This includes failed attempts by VEOs, such as when improvised explosive devices (IEDs) been discovered and dismantled.
  • Sahel MeMo recorded 11 casualties and 18 wounded among Malian security forces while 8 peacekeepers of MINUSMA injured.
  • In February 2017 only 2 attacks were officially claimed by Ansar al-Din and AQIM.
  • Niger witnessed at least one deadly attack on its forces in Tillabéry Region on the borders with Mali. At least 15 soldiers killed and 18 injured. This forced Nigerien government to declare state of emergency in most of Tahoua and Tillabéry Regions. Barkhane also established a remote post in Tillebéry Region.
  • Security situation in Burkina Faso on the borders with Mali has degraded. Militant group identified as Ansarul Islam emerged in the area while little is known thus far about the group and its capabilities. However local officials and school teachers have been threatened by unidentified individuals at Soum near borders with Mali.
  • Colombian nun kidnapped by unknown gunmen at Karangasso, Sikasso Region. Hostage identified as Gloria Argoti and as of March 7th no group claimed responsibility. This brings total of 8 hostages being taken and held by jihadist groups or other unknown groups in Mali and neighboring countries in the Sahel.
  • Reportedly, members from Fulani and Bambara communities engaged in violent clashes in Ké-Macina, Mopti Region. At least 20 people killed.
  • Armed banditry continues to be threat to civilians and peacekeeping operations in central and northern Mali.

FEBRUARY 2017 INCIDENTS: FULL PDF REPORT

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Mali: January 2017 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, and Other Security Incidents

By Rida Lyammouri

February 17th, 2017

Analysis and Comments

  • Sahel MeMo recorded at least 106 casualties and 138 injuries, making January 2017 one of the deadliest month in Mali’s history. AQIM Gao attack on 18 JAN 17 is the deadliest by a jihadist group in Mali and the region.
  • Gao attack on Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination (MOC in French) the victims were mostly fighters from armed groups.
  • Besides victims of Gao attack most of casualties were recorded among Malian forces, Sahel MeMo recorded at least 15 killed and 14 wounded in January 2017.
  • Sahel MeMo recorded 1 MINUSMA peacekeeper killed and at least 2 injured in January 2017.
  • Sahel MeMo recorded at least 3 assassination attempts against elected officials in central Mali in January 2017.
  • AQIM released video of Beatrice Stockly kidnapped in Timbuktu one year ago, on 07 January 2016.
  • January 2017 witnessed at least 3 attacks on Non-government organizations (NGOs) complicating further any efforts to assist disadvantaged and unprotected population in remote areas, notably northern and central regions.
  • Sahel MeMo recorded at least 18 violent incidents related to violent extremist organizations (VEOs).
  • Sahel MeMo recorded at least 10 armed robberies in northern and central Mali
  • January 2017 witnessed decline in the number of attacks claimed by Ansar al-Din through its media outlet, al-Rimah.
  • Following the Gao attack number of suspects were arrested, including well-known locals in Gao Region. This indicates further possible murky ties between these individuals and militant groups despite differences in ideology.

DOWNLOAD FULL PDF REPORT FROM SAHEL MEMO PAGE

Mali: November 2016 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, and Islamic State Branch in the Sahel

By Rida Lyammouri

January 31, 2017

Full PDF report could be found here: http://www.sahelmemo.com/2017/01/31/mali-november-2016-violence-related-to-aqim-ansar-al-din-mujwa-and-islamic-state-branch-in-the-sahel/

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Mali: October 2016 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, Islamic State Branch in the Sahel and Other Security Incidents

By Rida Lyammouri

November 16th, 2016

  • There were at least 16 casualties and 21 injuries in violent attacks related to VEOs in Mali in October 2016.
  • Out of 18 attacks MINUSMA forces were targeted 5 times, Malian Army 8 times, Barkhane forces 3 times, 1 civilian vehicle [ambulance at Malian Army checkpoint], and 1 attack rockets were fired on the city of Gao.
  • At least 18 attacks related to VEOs operating in Mali in October 2016. Ansar al-Din officially claimed 7 out of the 18 attacks through its media arm al-Rimah, AQIM claimed 1 attack, and 10 attacks were unclaimed.
  • Ansar al-Din remains the main threat to French, Malian, and MINUSMA forces. Ansar al-Din threat is high and most likely to continue in Kidal Region and in Mopti Region through Macina brigade.
    • At least 11 Malian security forces members killed and at least 8 injured.
    • 2 MINUSMA peacekeepers killed and at least 7 injured.
    • 6 French soldiers injured and 3 civilians killed.
  • Number of attacks per region:
    • Kidal Region: 5
    • Timbuktu Region: 6
    • Gao Region: 4
    • Central Mali: 3
  • October 2016 witnessed worrying development, MUJWA splinter that pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State in May 2015 claimed two attacks through Mauritania’s news outlet al-Akhbar.info. Attacks claimed took place in Niger and Burkina Faso.
  • Niger and Burkina Faso borders area with Mali witnessed at least 4 violent attacks related to VEOs.

FULL PDF REPORT: October Monthly Tracker 2016 for Mali

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Niger: Country with limited resources facing neighbors spillover

By Rida Lyammouri

October 10th, 2016

“The whole population of Niger is at shock after Tazalit attack,” said Malian refugee in Niger. Malians fled Mali to find safety in Niger, but it’s challenging for a country with no resources and capabilities, and facing violence spillover from neighboring countries. After Bosso attack not too long ago, Niger yet again is at shock and at a moment of sadness. While Niger managed to contain at some level domestic violence related to violent extremist organizations (VEOs), could not keep VEOs from penetrating its territories. Both incidents, Bosso and Tazalit, were a result of an insurgency occurring in a neighboring country. Images below show another sad moment of innocent Nigerien security forces buried as a result of a conflict in a neighboring country.

Niger witnessed yet again a deadly attack by suspected jihadists on 06 October 2016, and this time in Tahoua Region. The attack was reportedly targeted Nigerien forces post at Tazalit refugee camp. Nigerien Prime Minister confirmed the incident and that at least 22 Nigerien security members were allegedly brutally executed by bullets to the head, including 14 National Guards, 5 Gendarmes, and 3 Soldiers. Five other officers were injured while only three survived the attack. Aggressors appeared well informed and knew where security post is located. The attackers reported to be around 40, and conflicting reports speaking Arabic and Tamasheq [Tuareg language]. During the attack weapons were seized, as well as ammunition, three vehicles, and one ambulance.

As of 10 October no group claimed responsibility and difficult to identify who is behind the attack. The area is on the borders with Ménaka Region, northern Mali where different groups have operated and occupied since 2012. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) might appear the main suspect but since 2012 the group have been weakened and witnessed major division among its leadership. While seems unlikely to have the capacity to carry such a deadly attack in Niger, MUJWA have demonstrated during previous attacks [see timeline below] its ability to penetrate Nigerien territory and appear to be very familiar with the area.

History of attacks, familiarity with the area, and local recruitment carried in the area suggest MUJWA is the strongest suspect behind this attack. Remaining MUJWA members have been quiet for over a year but this should not lead to the conclusion that is not operational. For instance, several violent attacks against Malian, Foreign, and armed groups forces took place in Mali near Nigerien borders and were never claimed by any VEO. Jihadist groups in the Sahel demonstrated are patient and willing to keep low profile then carry spectacular attacks when least expected. Take for instance Ansar al-Din in Mali; the group barely made headlines after the French intervention in January 2013. As of today, Ansar al-Din is the deadliest jihadist group in Mali and has expanded its area of operations. Another example al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), almost disappeared then resurfaced claiming attacks beyond northern Mali in Bamako, and beyond Mali for the first time in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Grand Bassam, Cote d’Ivoire. Thus it will be immature to say MUJWA is out of the equation.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahroui men are the other two suspects. Al-Sahroui men, MUJWA splinter, pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State (IS) in May 2015, carried and claimed its first attack last month in Burkina Faso near the borders with Mali and Niger. Al-Sahraoui was quick at claiming the Burkina Faso attack, so why not this one, especially with the number of casualties among Nigerien forces and the incident got more coverage? The same could be said about AQIM “ghost” brigade al-Nasser, it has been quiet and unclear why would not claim such spectacular attacks.

Despite who is behind Tazalit incident, the attack highlights the concern Niger is facing in regions other than Diffa and southeast area in general. Niger was repeatedly praised for being able to contain domestic conflicts that were aggravated post Libya revolution in 2011. However the country did not escape sporadic attacks in different parts of the country. As the timeline of attacks below shows, Niger experienced attacks in almost all regions that resulted important number of casualties.

Niger Regions Tahoua and Tillabery have been facing major security concerns despite that VEOs never held strong bases at any of these areas. For instance MUJWA was content to show no intention at establishing bases in Niger but willing to demonstrate its operational abilities penetrating and carrying attacks on Nigerien soil. Similar could be said about AQIM that have been using Nigerien territory to conduct operations as far as the capital Niamey.

Niger is surrounded by countries facing political and religious insurgencies and lacks the resources and capabilities to protect its territory. While it remains unclear which group is behind Tazalit attack, Niger is most likely to continue to be a fallback for VEOs facing pressure in neighboring countries to carry spectacular attacks. These attacks have different goals: to seize weapons and to remain popular to local population for recruitment purposes.

Timeline of Attacks on Niger: Tillabery, Tahoua, and Agadez Regions

On 11 September 2016 unknown gunmen carried an attack on Nigerien security post at Tabarey Barey refugee camp just outside Ayorou. As a result two civilians and one Nigerien soldier injured. No group claimed responsibility.

On 17 March 2016 unidentified gunmen attacked a Nigerien gendarmerie post. Three gendarmes were killed, and no group claimed responsibility and it’s an area where different groups could be responsible, including former MUJAO men under Adnane Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, al-Murabitoun of AQIM under Belmokhtar, or members of Ansar al-Din South brigade. This one attack demonstrates how little is known about the area and group’s operating there.

On 28 April 2016 unknown militants killed one policeman was and injured two in Tahoua Region in an unknown location few miles from the borders with Mali.

On 19 November 2014 suspected members of MUJWA entered Niger from Mali and carried an attack Bani Bangou town, Tillabery Region. The attack targeted Gendarmerie post at the exit of the town. One Nigerien security officer killed and two injured.

On 30 October 2014 unknown gunmen carried complex attack in Tillabery Region. Three attacks were conducted almost simultaneously on Mangaize Refugee Camp, a prison in Ouallam, and a Nigerien security patrol. All attacks took place in Tillabery Region. As a result nine members of Nigerien security forces killed.

On 23 May 2013 Belmokhtar men carried simultaneous attacks in Agadez and Arlit, Agadez Region. Attacks targeted Uranium facility in Arlit and military base in Agadez. As a result at least 24 Nigerien security members killed.