It’s been years since anyone was certain on the fate of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram. That’s due in large part to the mystery shrouding the militant, who has repeatedly been reported dead only to reemerge in photos, video, or audio footage that seems to prove otherwise.
A year and a half ago, his terrorist group declared loyalty to the Islamic State and renamed itself the “West Africa province” of the self-proclaimed caliphate. And this week, an official Islamic State publication announced that the Nigerian branch has a new leader: Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who was previously identified as the group’s spokesman.
Although an interview with Barnawi, which appeared in the weekly Arabic-language al-Naba publication, did not explicitly state that he has replaced Shekau, it did raise speculation that the group may now be fully and publicly governed by someone else.
“The way that they refer to Shekau, it leaves open the question of whether or not he has been killed,” Michael Smith, a terrorism analyst at Kronos Advisory, told Foreign Policy in a phone call on Wednesday.
Boko Haram is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions more across Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, since it launched its violent offensive in 2009. Its pledge of loyalty to the Islamic State last year prompted uncertainty as to what that relationship would mean for either terrorist group in terms of actual financial or logistical support. Still, this week’s media coordination between militants in Nigeria and the Middle East may signal deeper ties between what many experts have been hesitant to call more than just an affiliation between two relatively separate groups.
“They’re using this to draw attention to the fact that the Islamic State is operating far beyond Syria and Iraq,” Smith said.
The Islamic State’s expansion from Iraq and Syria to Libya, and to sleeper cells across Europe, has prompted fears that the group is also diverting more time and resources to Nigeria, where a regional task force has somewhat successfully beat back the extremists enough to regain significant territory from its control. In the wake of those advances, Boko Haram has diverted to even more asymmetrical warfare, including strapping bombs to young girls and sending them to crowded mosques and marketplaces where they are detonated.
In the interview published by al-Naba this week, Barnawi said that the group will now stop bombing mosques, as those attacks target pious Muslims who should not be punished by the group. Instead, he said, his militants will launch an even greater crusade against Christians, which will include “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the Cross,” he said, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks terrorist activity online.
According to Smith, the group’s rejuvenated focus on targeting Christians in Nigeria will likely be used not only to build goodwill in the larger Muslim community, but also to “further exacerbate tensions between Christian and Muslims communities there.”
“There are some indicators that they want to avoid bad blood because they are concerned about their brand in that area,” he said.
Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images