Since the beginning of Ramadan, there has been a burst of activity in northern Nigeria involving the al Qaeda-linked terror group Boko Haram. Some of it stems from the group’s history of internal fractures, which has led to different factions calling themselves “Boko Haram,” all of whom are at odds not only with the Nigerian state, but with each other. The claims and counterclaims regarding Boko Haram’s leadership, representation, and intentions have caused confusion and distrust, especially since members of the Nigerian government cannot seem to agree as to what is really going on.
On July 8, the first day of Ramadan, it was reported that over the weekend, Boko Haram had brutally murdered 42 people at a boarding school in Yobe state. The next morning, the Nigerian press claimed that a ceasefire deal had been reached, and quoted Imam Muhammadu Marwana, an influential member of the Abubakar Shekau-led Boko Haram.
“We are seeking forgiveness from the people over the number of people killed in the country. I appeal to those who lost their loved ones to our activities to forgive us and on our side we have forgiven all those who committed atrocities against us,” Marwana reportedly said.
The ceasefire was subsequently confirmed by the Nigerian Minister for Special Duties, Kabiru Turaki, chairman of a presidential committee set up to negotiate with the group and Shekau’s apparent deputy, Sheikh Abdulazeez. Although Turaki went on to say that the agreement had the full support of Abubaker Shekau, less than a week later Shekau released a video denying that any deal had been made.
In the 15-minute video, Shekau also called for more attacks against schools, and described Western education as a “plot against Islam.” He continued: “Teachers who teach Western education? We will kill them! We will kill them in front of their students, and tell the students to henceforth study the Qur’an.”
In addition, Shekau disavowed any knowledge of Adulazeez. “I swear by Allah that Abdulazeez or whatever he calls himself did not get any authority from me to represent me in any capacity. I do not know him. And if we per adventure encounter Abulazeez and his group, I swear by Allah we are going to mete them with the grave judgment that Allah has prescribed for their likes in the holy book,” Shekau declared.
The situation remained tense at the end of July, when local youths, frustrated with the Nigerian government’s lack of progress, formed a “Civilian Joint Task Force” to pursue Boko Haram, in conjunction with the military Joint Task Force. Clashes between the vigilante youths and the insurgents have been violent.
On Aug. 1, a report in the Huffington Post stated that Abubaker Shekau had been shot and deposed by his own followers as a prelude to peace negotiations with the Nigerian government. The report alleged that Boko Haram’s leadership had sent representatives to the Nigerian capital Abuja on June 25 where they revealed to the government that Shekau was no longer their leader. The report quoted Imam Liman Ibrahim, described as “the spiritual leader of Boko Haram,” as stating that Shekau’s teachings were becoming increasingly harsh, and that “the beheadings, the killings, the recent death of students … this is not the way of the Holy Qu’ran. We could tolerate it no longer.”
According to the report, Shekau had been given a choice of joining the peace dialogue, forming his own sect, or being killed, and had subsequently been shot in the lower leg, thigh, and shoulder. The sight of a limping Shekau in a video clip recovered by the military after a raid on a Boko Haram camp seemed to corroborate the story.
However, on Aug. 3, the military dismissed the report of Shekau’s removal, claiming that its intention was to mislead the government and the Nigerian public. The next day a member of the Presidential Committee on Amnesty for Boko Haram, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, disclosed that there has been no ceasefire deal with members of the Boko Haram militants, only “an understanding to enter into dialogue that could lead to ceasefire.” As if to confirm this statement, clashes between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram on Aug. 5 left at least 35 dead.
The following day, Muhammadu Marwana released a statement in which he claimed to have “personally instructed the attack in Kano to prove to the world that, I am the real leader of Boko Haram because there have been retrogressive forces on the issue of dialogue, who kept doubting my leadership in the sect.” Marwana went on to say: “Shekau is alive contrary to speculations, except that he lost leadership of the sect. I will not tell you where he is, but he is alive.”
A history of divisions
If Marwana’s statement is true, it would not be the first time that Boko Haram has dealt with internal division. In late 2011, it was widely reported that the group had split into three factions, with one hardline group refusing to negotiate and intent on its goal of implementing sharia law across Nigeria, and two more moderate factions. At the same time, criminals began to call themselves “Boko Haram” in order to further their own ends. Later, the hardline group split again over the question of whether to target other Muslims, resulting in the emergence of the terror group “Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan,” or “Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa,” known simply as “Ansaru,” in January 2012.
Both Boko Haram and Ansaru have ties to other Islamist groups, but Ansaru’s are more pronounced due to its focus on international affairs and the global Muslim community. Furthermore, there is evidence that both Ansaru and the Algeria and Mali-based Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) received training together from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Two days ago, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said that, after a preliminary investigation, in her view the acts attributed to the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram are likely crimes against humanity. Since Nigeria ratified the ICC Rome Statute in 2001, the ICC has jurisdiction over human rights crimes committed within Nigeria. This means that regardless of who is in power and regardless of the outcome of any negotiations with the government, Boko Haram might still face charges for the crimes it has committed.
Zachary Elkaim is a Researcher at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies, where he monitors emerging security and counterterror
concerns in Africa. He has a BA in History from Tulane University
and an MA in Government, focusing on Counter-Terrorism and Homeland
Security, from the Interdisciplinary Center at the Lauder School of
Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel.
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