di Luciano Pollichieni
Over the last two years, two main trends have emerged in Boko Haram’s insurgency. Firstly, the group is evidently retreating: in fact it is nowadays present only in the Sambisa forest – in northeastern Nigeria – and in the Lake Chad basin. Secondly, new fractures are emerging inside Boko Haram. In particular, this second phenomenon might explain many things about the future of its armed insurgency and suggest how to defeat the extremist Islamic sect. The presence of factions inside Boko Haram might be a precious opportunity to achieve a definitive truce or, on the contrary, it might be the beginning of a new a deadliest phase in the war. For this reason, it is important to consider this characteristic of Boko Haram which is “a group historically fractured” : this means that the perception of the sect as a univocal movement would lead to disastrous results in the fight against it. Therefore this analysis is aimed at giving new updates on the current status in the counter-terrorism strategies against Boko Haram as well as explaining, at the best of our capacities, the origins and the emergence of the different fractures inside it in order to try to assess the future of the insurgency.
The fight against Boko Haram: assessing the state of the art
The retreat of the Nigerian sect has begun with the bay’a to al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (IS). Some experts have analysed in a “quasi-hysterical way” the announcement of the merging between Boko Haram and IS without understanding how, despite the propaganda of the insurgents, this was not a sign of strength but the exact opposite. At its peak in terms of strength and expansion, Boko Haram tried to create its own caliphate with its headquarters in the city of Gwoza, in Borno State. In a statement of August 2014 , Abubakar Shekau announced the birth of this new political subject without mentioning the Islamic State’s caliphate or its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The geopolitical project of the Gwoza caliphate was completely separated, if not even antithetical, to the one of the IS also for historical references. It is not a mystery that Boko Haram claims to be the heir of the Sokoto sultanate of Usman Dan Fodio  – in a wide area that nowadays includes northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon as well as parts of Niger – and it is evident that the memory of the “Arab” caliphates, like the one which inspires the Islamic State, is less attractive in Africa.
When the pressure of the Nigerian Army was rising around Gwoza, Shekau and his followers decided to pledge alliance to the IS (March, 9th ). Despite this announcement, on March, 27th 2015  the Nigerian military forces retook possess of the city. Boko Haram had to run from Gwoza where its caliphate had last for 8 months only. After the failure of this new political project, the sect has experienced a deep crisis for three main reasons: firstly, because of the internal fracture created by the bay’a to the IS. Secondly, because of its action in the Lake Chad basin, that has been challenged by the new alliance of the neighbouring countries, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) composed by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Thirdly, because of the modernization of the Army launched by the President Muhammadu Buhari as part of national strengthening campaign, along with the spread of the local vigilantes group (the Civilian Joint Task Force or CJTF) and a tighten financial contrast on Boko Haram’s funding . The rapid decline of the insurgency  has pushed the President to declare the insurgency as “technically defeated” in December 2015. Buhari has been too much optimistic, because if it is true that on the one hand Boko Haram is now confined in the Sambisa Forest and the Lake Chad basin, on the other hand the group is far from being completely defeated. The sect has showed its resilience in shifting its tactics from a conventional war to an insurgency. Furthermore, its operation range is still wide in the North, how the recent vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack near Maiduguiri has shown . Moreover, the episodes of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses by the CJTF and by the Army are increasing the protests against the government. There is another interesting factor that has emerged in the last year of the insurgency: the start of a new phase of political dialogue between Boko Haram and the Federal Government. Former President Goodluck Jonathan, as well as several prominent Nigerian military leaders, had already tried to find a political solution to the war and to tackle the current security challenges in the north of the Country but with no results. It was emblematic in this regard his quote: «You cannot declare amnesty for ghosts» . Despite the “spectral” nature of Boko Haram, it seems that the new administration has succeeded in the instauration of some diplomatic relations with the group, as shown by peace talk initiatives related to the liberation of the Chibok girls. In April 2016, a video was published  by an unidentified group picturing 21 young girls which might be a part of the 219 kidnapped students, while in October 2016 Mallah Garba Shehu, Buhari’s spokesman, announced on Twitter  the liberation of 21 of the kidnapped girls. There are no clear hints about the nature of these negotiations but during the last months we observed some signal of detente even by the government. In November 2016, the army released 1.271 detainees  in Borno State, officially because of the lacking of evidence of ties between the prisoners and Boko Haram but it seems quite unrealistic that the Nigerian counter-terrorism forces would have made such a huge mistake. This approach to the mass kidnappings by the Federal Government might become a double-cut knife because Boko Haram could use the mass abduction, such as the one of 300 elementary schoolchildren in the town of Damasak  (March 2016), to extort money and concessions from Abuja while using a part of the kidnapped as a source of recruitment. In light of the current inability of Boko Haram to further extend its territory and due to the government’s limits on promoting a real stabilization process , the political talks with Boko Haram seem to be the best solution in order to save lives and to end the insurgency. In this context, it might be useful to understand two things about the group: Boko Haram is not a unique entity; the outcome of the dialogue will depend on which group Nigeria will talk with.
Boko Haram: a history of fractures
As Virginia Comolli pointed out, the splintering process has always been characteristic of Nigerian Islamist movements . The different fractures in Nigeria among these types of groups are often characterised by two common factors: a) a cleavage between a leader-mentor of the group and one or more of his pupils; b) the manifestation of a reformist spirit, not in the Western sense. In fact, the modernisation and/or reform of the Islamist movement have always been linked to the innovation of Islamic practices that have become tighter. To clearly understand the nature of some part of Islamism in Nigeria we should note other two key issues in its history. The movements are always characterised by harsh criticisms to the central government and by the rejection of Western values broadly speaking; since its origins Boko Haram has inherited all these characteristics. The sect was born from a splintering led by Mohammed Yusuf from the Jamâ’atul Tajdidi Islam (JTI), which in turn had split from the Nigeria’s Islamic Movement. The period of the Yusuf leadership is the only one when the group reached a sort of “centralised unity” among its factions . The 2009 crackdown on the sect, which culminates with the death of Mohammed Yusuf, was also the beginning of the diaspora among the top members of the group. Abuakar Shekau probably remained in Nigeria, while Khalid Al-Barnawi and Adam Kambar moved to Sahel or Somalia where they joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab training and forging links with the local khatibat. The returnee of Boko Haram from the Sahara became known as the yan Sahara, the Sahara men. The same is believed to be true for Mamman Nur who has been always seen as the link between Boko Haram and al-Shabaab and AQIM. In 2010 under Shekau leadership, Boko Haram restarted its insurgency, but from this moment onwards the group has always been more a sum of factions than a unique movement. To use the words of an International Crisis Group Report , since 2010 until today Boko has been a “network of networks” formed by a wide variety of subjects: common criminals, committed Islamists, or broken foot soldiers. In fact, after Boko Haram’s rebirth, a variety of small gangs have started to use the name of the group to gain credibility at a local level. This status was perceived as problem for the new leaders who experienced very little control over different cells . At the beginning, Boko Haram was led by a triumvirate formed by Shekau, Mamman Nur and an unknown leader (probably Khalid al-Barnawi or Adam Kambar) but between 2010 and 2011, Shekau started to overtop each decision of the shura council . At the same time, he has started to express the need to link Boko Haram with international jihadism. Below the triumvirate six factions that composed Boko Haram:
- the al-Barnawi faction: which is believed to be the most sophisticated faction in the group because of its links with other international jihadi group;
- the Mamman Nur Faction: according to the International Crisis Group , the foot soldiers of this faction are closer to Nur than to Shekau;
- the Aminu Tashen-Ilimi faction: whose chief is also the leader of Boko Haram in Kano. Ilimi is a sort of legend within the group because he led the 2003 uprising in Kanamma alongside with Shekau;
- the Abdullahi Damask’s faction;
- the Abu Sumayya’s faction: which is based in Bauchi. About Abu Sumayya, it is interesting to note how Boko Haram and Ansaru have tried to kill him because they believed that he was a mole of the Federal Government;
- the Shekau’s faction: almost entirely composed by the youth. It it one of the biggest factions in terms of both weapons and soldiers.
Over this six “official” factions there were rumours  about two more groups, one led by Mohamed Mohaan and another led by Abu Mohammed Adu Aziz. In January 2012, some members of Boko Haram decided to found a new group: Ansaru (or Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands) was officially born under the leadership of Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi. The latter appeared in the first video of the group where he went by the name of Abu Usmatul al-Ansari. Although Ansaru claimed that the origins of its split are linked to the “un-Islamic” strategy of Boko Haram of targeting civilians, it seems that the true reasons were economic. In fact, it is believed that al-Barnawi wanted to use the ransoms of the kidnappings to compensate the families of the dead members of the sect while Shekau preferred to distribute them among the top leaders of Boko Haram . Despite the official split between the two groups, Ansaru and Boko Haram have never clashed, on the opposite it seems that they might have cooperated in some occasions such as in the kidnapping of a French family in Cameroon in 2014. After the arrest of Khalid al-Barnawi in April 2016 the two groups merged again but the fractures inside Boko Haram were not over. The first motivation that led to the splintering has been the bay’a to the Islamic State. Boko Haram expected to earn in terms of both soldiers and money from the merging with the IS but the alliance has not brought to such results. Furthermore, a conspicuous part of the sect leaders was sceptical about the alliance with al-Baghdadi . This seems especially true for the al-Qaeda pupils who were afraid of loosing grip among local populations because of the targets chosen by Sheaku such as the refugee camps in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin . The crack down of the army, along with the disagreement among the different factions has pushed some of its members to flee to Libya and Syria .
On August, 3rd 2016, at the peak of the disagreement among the factions, IS announced the nomination as new wali (governor) of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, former spokesman of the sect and allegedly the son of Mohammed Yusuf . In an article published on the Arabic newspaper al-Naba , Abubakar Shekau replied with a new audio tape  in which he claimed the leadership of Boko Haram. On 7th of August he appeared in a video with the Boko Haram logo (not the IS’ one) and this detail has pushed some analysts to suppose that Shekau might have formed a new organisation outside the Islamic State. There are many hypotheses about why the IS core leadership has decided to remove Shekau. Some analysts argue that he had been already kicked out of Boko Haram after the arrival of some IS members from Libya , while David Garenstein has stated that the rise of Abu Musab Al-Barnawi might be the consequence of an infiltration of Boko Haram by al-Qaeda . Shekau has claimed that al-Baghdadi is victim of a plot and for this reason he has been cut out from speaking with the “caliph”. There are not specific proofs to demonstrate the truthfulness of these theories but it is certain that the current fractures inside Boko Haram are deeper than in the past. Moreover, it seems that former members of Ansaru having too many ex-friends and allies, as such as Abu Musab, who in his first video has appeared as wali of the dissolved group. Even if the two leaders have not officially announced a jihad against each other, they are committed in a war of statements with Shekau. The latter has accused al-Barnawi of not being a true salafi while Barnawi and Nur have claimed that Shekau is a slaughter, which kills fellow Muslims. Furthermore, some gangs, belonging to different factions, have already clashed in Borno State on last August . It is also clear the geographical fragmentation between the two factions: Shekau might be in the Sambisa forest, while al-Barnawi’s faction might be in North-East of Maiduguri . There are no exact estimates about the number of soldiers of each faction: Fulan Nasrullah, one of the top experts in Boko Haram, claimed that the biggest part of the group is loyal to Shekau , while Abu Musab al-Barnawi claimed that his faction is still an “important force” .
Winning peace: a guide to the peace talks with Boko Haram
On December 2016, it will be the 7th anniversary of the beginning of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Over these years the group has evidently evolved its tactics and skills and its bloody actions gave it an international notoriety. As we have seen above, Buhari has claimed that the group is technically defeated and the Army staff says that they are cleaning the last remaining members of the group from both Sambisa and the Lake Chad but it seems clear that the uprising has disclosed the contradictions and fragilities inside Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan was wrong in denying the social roots of the uprising  that are now clears and evident. The main question is: what will be the future of Boko Haram? According to Hillary Matfess  we can advance three possible scenarios for the future of the insurgency: first, an increase in intra-sectarian violence that might mark the end of Boko Haram as known. Secondly we might observe a “division before fading out” scenario. As happened with Ansaru, the two main factions of Boko Haram might not challenge each other before the new merging. This scenario is unlikely to be realized.because it is not clear which faction will have enough force to absorb the other one. Furthermore, we must underline how this scenario would be the best solution for the Islamic State’s core leadership . The third scenario outlined by Matfess is based on the possibility of a dual insurgency but, as we have noted above, some parts of the two factions have already clashed and it is unlikely that two groups can pacifically accept to use the same claims and logo with a divided leadership. In 2012, Lieutenant-General Azubuike Ihejirika was both prophetical and wise when he claimed that: «Nigerians should not think of Boko Haram alone, because when Boko Haram goes another insurgency may come».
In fact, the retreating of the sect on the North has been marked by the rise of a new insurgency in the Niger Delta in the South. What Boko Haram has showed, and what some part of the Nigerian establishment seems to ignore, is that a merely military approach to the insurgency might limit the expansion of the sect but it will not pose a solution to the root-causes of the war. The International Crisis Group has pointed out how Boko Haram is staying in power in the northern Nigeria because of corruption, the growing inequalities and the political exploitation of sharia by the North political elites . Furthermore it is clear that the group has its roots in areas where he enjoys the existence of an «important structure of violence based on banditry which was pervasive and inter-connected» . This means that the rise of Boko Haram is a clear example of terror-crime nexus and that as long as this link will not be broken the sect will hold some form of power in the country.
Before tackling the causes of the insurgency it is important to achieve a ceasefir; in this context the Federal Government should talk with the “moderate” faction of the groups. There are two concrete challenges on this issue: first, the adoption of a strategy similar to the one already used for the Niger Delta insurgency. The payment of any local faction’s leaders to stop the war has demonstrated all its limits  in the Niger Delta context and it is doubtful that it will work in the long term with Boko Haram. Abuja should try to adopt a more assertive posture, gaining the upper hand in the peace talks in order to build a more solid basis to the peace. Secondly, Abuja should be careful in identifying the “moderates” from the hard line of the sect. Even if Abu Musab al-Barnawi can be perceived as a moderate compared to Shekau, he shares links with both al-Qaeda and IS; if the current Boko Haram’s chief will benefit by a sort of legitimacy, it is obvious that these two groups will gain it too and this will pose Abuja in a difficult position in front of the international community. Moreover, we should consider the words of the US Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldahuser of the US AFRICOM when he claimed that Barnawi might be more interested in attacking Christians and Western objectives than Shekau .
Whatever the future of the insurgency and of the political talks will be, it is obvious that something must change in Nigeria. As some important authors have pointed out, Boko Haram is more a challenge to Islam than to other civilizations , so we can assess that the insurgency is not a challenge to a single government but to Nigeria as nation and as socio-political system.
* Luciano Pollichieni, OPI Contributor, è Dottore in Relazioni Internazionali (LUISS Guido Carli), collaboratore di Limes – Rivista italiana di geopolitica, studioso di jihadismo e mafie
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