On Jan. 19, the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released 49 documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound. To date, only a few hundred documents from bin Laden’s massive cache have been declassified. Still, the files that have been posted online reveal new details about al Qaeda’s complex international network.
For instance, one newly released missive discusses Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) support for Boko Haram. The letter was written by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was subsequently killed in Mali in 2013. It was authored in Aug. 2009 and is addressed to AQIM’s emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud).
Boko Haram’s men sought AQIM’s assistance
“Imam Abubakar Shekau, who assumed power of the Nigeria group after the death of Imam Muhammad Yusuf, sent three brothers to us,” Abou Zeid wrote at the beginning of his letter.
Shekau (seen on the right) is the notorious leader of the organization commonly known as Boko Haram. Yusuf, who was killed in 2009, was Shekau’s immediate predecessor as head of the group.
Abou Zeid identified the “three brothers” as “Abu Muhammad Amir al Masir, Khalid al Barnawi, and Abu Rayhanah,” adding that the trio “previously lived with us in the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Battalion and we know them well and have close ties with them.” The Tariq Ibn Ziyad Battalion has been one of AQIM’s strongest fighting units.
The three “want to have ties between their emir and the emir of AQIM and set up comms via Internet and phone,” Abou Zeid continued. “They want to have an intermediary who is based in Niger” and “request cooperation between us and them and mentioned having a big problem with weapons and money.”
Abou Zeid explained to Droukdel that the trio wanted “to take brothers out of Nigeria and bring them here for training” and “would like to consult regarding waging jihad in Nigeria.”
The jihadis in Nigeria were desperate for “weapons and money,” Abou Zeid explained, and “some of the brothers are despairing” after their last major fight with government forces. He indicated that the three men had only a small supply of arms and were “also having problems with explosives,” including “buying the materials.” Many of their arms had fallen “into enemy hands” or were “broken,” and they had just “1000 detonators” for explosives.
According to Abou Zeid, Shekau’s comrades wanted to “wage guerrilla warfare” in Nigeria, but had suffered serious setbacks. “Right now they are trying to avoid confronting the enemy except through martyrdom operations and IEDs [improvised explosive devices].” The three men told Abou Zeid that “they have been waging jihad, trying to kill the biggest of the criminals, but have achieved nothing so far.” Only once they “have real bases in the mountains or the jungle” could they launch sustained attacks.
Abou Zeid was willing to help rectify the seemingly dire situation. “They have about 200 brothers they want to train here,” the AQIM commander explained to his boss. “They would come here for training and then return to Nigeria and then another group would come.” Abou Zeid elaborated on the training, saying it was “divided into two kinds: practical training, for which we cannot set a time limit, and theoretical training, which is less beneficial.”
It “should be easy to manage” their request for “an intermediary based in Niger,” Abou Zeid noted, “but it needs to be done in complete secrecy.” “[E]xperience has shown,” Abou Zeid noted dryly, that the liaison’s “lifespan will be short.”
“Regarding communications, I told them it will be easy, it happens all the time,” Abou Zeid added.
Despite Boko Haram’s generally weak position in Nigeria at the time, Abou Zeid’s letter hinted at a broader infrastructure from which they could draw new recruits and support. Indeed, after suffering losses in 2009, Boko Haram rebounded to become a major force in Nigeria, with its terror tentacles extending into the surrounding countries.
Abou Zeid “asked about their centers,” by which he meant locations for recruiting and indoctrination. “They have a large center in Borno called Ibn Taymiyah,” he wrote, referring to the mosque named after a medieval jihadi ideologue that served as Boko Haram’s headquarters. “This center has a mosque, a house for the Imam, a university that teaches Shari’ah knowledge, and a library.”
Abou Zeid listed 14 other “centers,” with “about 5,000 students overall.” The “brothers set up these centers” after running into “some problems” at mosques throughout the region. This is likely a reference to local Muslims resisting Boko Haram’s extremist brand of Islam.
Designations confirm AQIM provided training and other support to Boko Haram
“My dear sheikh, we are waiting for your response,” Abou Zeid wrote at the end of his letter to Droukdel. “Please don’t keep them waiting.”
We don’t know if Droukdel responded to this specific missive. If his reply was captured during the bin Laden raid, then it has not been released.
However, we know from other sources that AQIM did train Boko Haram fighters, just as Abou Zeid recommended. And AQIM wasn’t the only al Qaeda branch to support Shekau’s group. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, UN adds Boko Haram to al Qaeda sanctions list.]
In May 2014, the United Nations (UN) added Boko Haram to its terror designation list, noting that the group “has maintained a relationship with” AQIM “for training and material support purposes.” For instance, “Boko Haram gained valuable knowledge on the construction of improvised explosive devices from AQIM.” Interestingly, Abou Zeid’s letter specifically mentioned Boko Haram’s interest in using IEDs in its insurgency. “A number of Boko Haram members also fought alongside Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013 before returning to Nigeria with terrorist expertise,” the UN reported.
The Boko Haram-AQIM connection has also been recognized in official US statements, even though the Obama administration initially declined to designate the organization. In 2012, the State Department designated three individual terrorists, including Abubakar Shekau and Khalid al Barnawi. State noted that Barnawi and another jihadi “have ties to Boko Haram and have close links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
In June 2013, the State Department offered a $7 million reward for information on Shekau’s whereabouts. Foggy Bottom said that Boko Haram’s relationships with three al Qaeda branches — AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Shabaab in Somalia — “may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.” In November of that year, State finally designated Boko Haram, noting its “links to” AQIM. The US government has recognized these ties on other occasions as well.
The question of organizational affiliation
Al Qaeda never recognized Boko Haram as a formal branch of its organization, even though Shekau pursued the issue with bin Laden’s lieutenants. Another letter recovered in bin Laden’s compound, and previously released to the public, included Shekau’s request for closer relations. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: Boko Haram’s leader wanted to be ‘under one banner’.]
In his undated letter to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, Shekau wrote that he and his men had “listened to…the tapes of al Qaeda and its sheikhs” and wanted “to learn about the system of the organization [al Qaeda] and how it is organized.”
Shekau asked Allah to “bear witness” that “we want to be under one banner and there must be a vision to begin with, because our religion is a religion of vision and knowledge.”
“With your permission,” Shekau concluded his letter, “I ask to speak with Osama bin Laden’s deputy, may Allah protect him, because the group is loyal, which Allah will ask me about on the Day of Judgment.”
We do not know how al Qaeda responded to Shekau’s request “to be under one banner.” Al Qaeda may have determined that Shekau, who is known for his erratic behavior and wanton violence, was an unacceptable choice to serve as its emir in West Africa.
Interestingly, Abou Zeid himself “asked” the three jihadis who worked with Shekau “if they were already an organization or if they wanted to join an organization.” They responded that “the Imam [Shekau] wants to talk about that himself, but he is ill due to wounds he received in the last war.” The passage confirms that Shekau was likely wounded in 2009, when Nigerian authorities cracked down on Boko Haram’s networks. It also appears that Abou Zeid was probing to see if Boko Haram wanted to join AQIM, or directly join al Qaeda, a move that Shekau himself needed to oversee.
Ansaru: AQIM’s allies reject Shekau
One of the three names mentioned in Abou Zeid’s letter — Khalid al Barnawi — is especially noteworthy. Although Barnawi and his two compatriots were allied with Shekau at the time, Barnawi would break away just a few years later. In early 2012, Barnawi and others formed Ansaru, a splinter group that objects to Shekau’s policies, including his indiscriminate use of violence.
Khalid al Barnawi’s and Ansaru’s “close” ties to AQIM have been recognized by the US State Department. And it is possible that AQIM sought to bolster Ansaru’s hand at the expense of Shekau.
In Mar. 2015, Shekau declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Boko Haram was rebranded as the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA). However, the so-called caliphate quickly rejected Shekau as its chief leader in the region. In Aug. 2016, the Islamic State announced that another jihadist, identified as Abu Musab al Barnawi, had been named wali, or governor, of its West African “province.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Jihadists argue over leadership of Islamic State’s West Africa province.]
Ansaru continues to operate independently from both ISWA and Boko Haram. The leadership of all three groups has been repeatedly targeted by Nigerian government forces.
In Apr. 2016, the Nigerian military announced that Khalid al Barnawi had been captured. “Security agents made a breakthrough…in the fight against terrorism by arresting Khalid al Barnawi, the leader of Ansaru terrorist group in Lokoja,” a Nigerian military spokesman said at the time, according to BBC News. “He is among those on top of the list of our wanted terrorists.”
Although it is difficult to judge how many members it has, Ansaru continued to fight on after Barnawi’s capture. And the group has also continued to critique Shekau’s ways.
Earlier this year, the pro-al Qaeda online magazine Al Risalah published an interview with Ansaru’s Sheikh Usama al Ansari. Ansari blasted Shekau and his policies, which have alienated a large segment of the population.
Ansari is clearly concerned with building popular support for the jihadis’ cause, just as al Qaeda leaders are. But Shekau has undermined their strategy. Shekau and his followers “transgressed” by “declaring the entire Muslim population disbelievers” simply because they had not yet adopted the jihadis’ version of monotheism, Ansari complained.
According to Ansari, Shekau labeled most Muslims disbelievers because they sent their children to “government schools” and “participated in democratic elections.” Like al Qaeda, Ansaru denounces these practices, but stops short of saying that these Muslims may be killed because of them.
The “result” of Shekau’s teachings “was an evil outcome,” according to Ansari. Shekau made it “permissible” to raid “the wealth and sanctities of the Muslims” and “initiated a campaign of indiscriminate shedding of Muslim blood.” Ansari also said that under Shekau’s leadership the “targeting of innocent Muslims in their homes and places of work,” as well as at shopping markets, “was to become the norm.”
Indiscriminate attacks at markets and other public venues frequented by Muslims are a violation of al Qaeda’s guidelines for waging jihad. So, Ansari’s criticism is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s policies.
Ansari added a stunning charge, claiming that Shekau “began killing the best of the mujahidin” and even had his men fire on a car that was transporting Khalid al Barnawi.
Ansaru, Shekau’s Boko Haram and ISWA are now in a three-way fight for control of the jihad in Nigeria. Only Ansaru and its leaders have clearly adopted al Qaeda’s ways.
In his interview with Al Risalah, Ansari praised members of al Qaeda residing in the Arabian Peninsula for “funding” and supporting efforts to revive jihadism in Nigeria during the early 21st Century. He also said that Ansaru consulted with the “Algerian brothers in the Sahara” — a likely reference to AQIM — before announcing the formation of their group in 2012.
“We categorically declare that we are not [Boko Haram], nor are we with their” emir Abubakar Shekau, Ansari said. It remains to be seen if Ansaru can grow into a significant force.