A dispute over the leadership of the Islamic State’s West Africa “province” has broken out into the public.
The controversy was revealed after the Islamic State’s An Naba magazine identified Abu Musab al Barnawi as the group’s wali, or governor, on Aug. 2.
That position had been held by Abu Bakr Shekau, the longtime leader of the group known as “Boko Haram.” In Mar. 2015, Shekau swore his allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Boko Haram was quickly rebranded as Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), with Shekau as its governor. [See LWJ reports: Boko Haram leader pledges allegiance to the Islamic State and Islamic State spokesman publicly accepts Boko Haram’s allegiance.]
An Naba’s announcement of Barnawi’s promotion drew a swift response from Shekau. An audio message attributed to Shekau was disseminated online just one day later, on Aug. 3.
The SITE Intelligence Group has translated both An Naba’s interview with Barnawi and the response from Shekau.
Shekau, who is notorious for being one of the jihadists’ most erratic leaders, criticizes Barnawi for not being extreme enough. Barnawi and his coterie say that “if a Muslim went to the land of disbelief and did not show his animosity to the disbelievers there, then he is not a disbeliever,” Shekau alleges, according to SITE’s translation. “However, we say that such a person is a disbeliever.”
Shekau charges that Barnawi and his men also “say that if [a Muslim] does not show his animosity to the tyrant who rules with something other than what Allah” decreed (meaning sharia law), then “he is not a disbeliever” either. Shekau says that “such a person is a disbeliever.”
In essence, Shekau argues that Barnawi refuses to accuse other Muslims of apostasy even when, in Shekau’s view, they clearly deserve it.
Shekau’s frustration is noticeable throughout the audio message. According to SITE’s translation, Shekau says he sent Baghdadi “many letters, eight letters, to show…the truth of the matter” based on Islamic texts, but Baghdadi apparently did not respond. Shekau reiterates that he sent Baghdadi (or his lieutenants) “many letters” demonstrating that Barnawi and his men adhered to a “false” creed based on “personal opinion.”
“You asked me about this so I responded to you in the language of verses and Hadith, and yet I found no answer,” Shekau says, according to SITE.
In An Naba, Barnawi discusses at length the history of his group, tracing its roots back to Boko Haram’s founding father, who is identified as “Abu Yusuf al Barnawi.” This is a reference to Mohammed Yusuf, who died in July 2009 after he was captured by Nigerian authorities.
Abu Musab al Barnawi briefly mentions that Shekau replaced Yusuf after the latter’s demise in 2009, but he does not add any more detail about Shekau’s current status.
Interestingly, Barnawi tries to soften his group’s image just a little, at least when it comes to the killing of Muslims. He rejects the claim that his fighters are “kharijites.” In the current context, this word is used as a synonym for “extremists.” It is often used by other Muslims, including al Qaeda’s ideologues and loyalists, to describe the Islamic State’s membership.
Barnawi claims that the Islamic State has “prohibited targeting the ordinary people,” whether they be in markets or mosques. However, ISWA has repeatedly targeted such locations. Therefore, Barnawi’s comments may reflect a concern over the widespread condemnation of ISWA’s often indiscriminate operations.
Barnawi does not hold back in his criticism of Christianity. He says the number of Christians in Nigeria has steadily grown since the latter part of the 20th Century and he warns that they are trying to “Christianize the society.”
An Naba’s interviewer asks Barnawi how his organization plans to deal with Nigeria’s Christians. Barnawi gives a striking answer.
It “is by 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,” Barnawi responds, according to SITE. In addition, he continues, “we educate the people and warn them of the risk of the Crusader organizations, and that they only came to Christianize their sons under the name of relief, and not to be deceived by it.”
Shekau’s fate has been a mystery for months, as various unsubstantiated rumors have circulated throughout the African press. But assuming the latest audio message is authentic, Shekau is alive — and he’s angry about being replaced.
Shekau still refers to Baghdadi as the “Caliph” in his message, but he is clearly aggravated by the way the Islamic State’s hierarchy has handled the leadership dispute.
How disputes are handled by the Islamic State’s bureaucracy
Shekau is not the first Islamic State wali (governor) to face a rebellion from his subordinates. As The Long War Journal reported, a cadre of senior leaders and fighters in the Yemen “province” rebelled against their wali late last year. [See LWJ report, Divisions emerge within the Islamic State’s Yemen ‘province’.]
The rogue faction sent a complaint to the “caliph’s office,” which is presumably in Raqqa. Their objections were answered in a matter of days by one of the Islamic State’s most senior administrators, Abu Ubaydah Abd al Hakim, who is a veteran jihadist and a member of the Islamic State’s shura council. Hakim dismissed the dissenters’ arguments and ordered them to fall in line behind the “caliphate’s” chosen wali.
“What you have ventured to do is absolutely rejected,” Hakim wrote. “You must hear and obey he who has been tasked with [governing] your emirate.” Hakim continued: “The walis do the work of the caliph, so hear and obey them as long as they do not order insubordination against Allah; their obedience is not to be questioned as long as you do not see a brazen nonbeliever among them.”
While the wali in Yemen received a ringing endorsement from the “caliphate’s” headquarters, Shekau apparently was not as fortunate.
In early July, the Islamic State’s Al Furqan media establishment produced a video outlining the “structure” of the khalifah. Al Furqan indicated that a “delegated committee” reports directly to Baghdadi and, among other duties, oversees all of the wilayat (or provinces). A screen shot from the video can be seen above.
Although the video greatly exaggerated the power and scope of the wilayat, it is likely that there is a body within the organization that oversees the wilayat. In that case, the “delegated committee,” or a similar entity, would have played a key role in sidelining Shekau. In the case of Yemen, Hakim was identified as a member of the group’s shura council, which also sits above the wilayat.
The degree to which the Islamic State’s mothership has been in contact with and directing ISWA has been the subject of some debate. However, the Barnawi-Shekau spat indicates that the Islamic State’s headquarters has a degree of control. An Naba is produced by the caliphate’s central media apparatus. Its announcement of Barnawi as ISWA’s new governor shows that the caliphate’s administrators decided he was more fit for command than Shekau.
Shekau does complain that his letters were ignored, but this may be because the chain-of-command had already decided he was too problematic to keep in place. Al Qaeda’s leaders made a similar calculation when Boko Haram was allied with their network. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that Shekau wanted to unite “under one banner” with al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: Boko Haram’s leader wanted to be ‘under one banner.’]
It is possible that Shekau swore bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda behind closed doors, but neither bin Laden, nor Ayman al Zawahiri ever officially recognized Shekau as their man. And no one in al Qaeda complained last year when Shekau decamped for the Islamic State.
Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram received assistance from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other al Qaeda groups. But al Qaeda also groomed another leadership cadre in Nigeria to serve its interests. Some of these jihadists formed Ansaru, which was allied with Shekau but also ended up condemning his and Boko Haram’s operations. Ansaru, which follows al Qaeda’s manhaj (methodology), criticized some of the very same practices Barnawi now disavows in An Naba, such as bombing markets and mosques. [See LWJ report, Jihadist divisions grow in Nigeria.]
Shekau’s message indicates that while he is no longer the wali of ISWA, he still sees himself as the head of Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah Lil Dawa Wal Jihad, the local name for what we in the West call Boko Haram. It remains to be see how strong his faction is after his unceremonious replacement.