What’s the latest with the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), the terrorist group better known as Boko Haram? In early August, the Islamic State named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new “Wali” of the group, replacing Abubakar Shekau. Shekau then released a video highlighting masses of soldiers and lambasted Barnawi as unqualified to be a leader.
The spat seems to center on the Shekau faction’s policy of targeting mosques and markets where Muslims were among the victims. Instead, Barnawi vowed to increase attacks on Christians and churches. Shekau’s luxurious lifestyle also came under fire.
The public feud raises a flood of questions about the future of the Lake Chad Basin, where Boko Haram has killed more than 50,000 people and displaced more than 2.8 million. The group gained international notoriety in 2014, when it abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from their dormitories in Chibok, Borno State.
Nigerian military spokesman Rabe Abubakar deemed the factionalization “the antics of a fading group.” Similarly, Khalid Aliyu, the secretary general of an umbrella group of Islamic organizations, asserted that “it’s a sign of the end of the whole saga.”
Boko Haram may just be a factional kind of organization
This optimism may be premature. Some research suggests that Boko Haram is primed for factionalization — rather than functioning as a group following one leader. As Paul Staniland has observed, insurgencies that rely on dispersed cells with few social ties to the insurgency’s leadership have difficulty maintaining control over their organization.
Many analysts, including professor Mohammed Kyari in Yola, Adamawa State, suggest Boko Haram is a collection of cells operating under a single banner. Using Staniland’s analysis, the recent fracturing among Boko Haram leaders may just reflect their way of operating. This would not be a response to the military’s increased efforts against the group.
How might factionalization affect the course of the insurgency?
Research by Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham suggests that splintering of rebel movements extends civil wars by creating “veto-players” that undermine peace negotiations. The Lake Chad Basin might see this dynamic if countries begin the process of brokering a peace deal or initiate an amnesty program.
Given what we know about insurgencies in general, and Boko Haram in particular, the division within Boko Haram can play out in three ways:
1) Violence between the sects — The veiled threats made by the leaders of the two factions suggest that fighting between the two groups is possible. Shekau’s YouTube video featured a large group of well-armed fighters, a visual demonstration of his continued power. Barnawi, on the other hand, has asserted that he has spies within Shekau’s bodyguards who will retaliate if he is attacked by those loyal to Shekau.
Though some Nigerian officials are optimistic that infighting could put an end to the insurgency, evidence from other conflicts suggests that the violence will only become more deadly. Kristin Bakke, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and Lee J.M. Seymour suggest that “this is because each faction finds itself in a ‘dual contest,’ pitted against both the state and other factions in a struggle for political power within the movement.”
This is what happened in Darfur in the early to mid-2000s. One review of the years following peak violence in the country found that rebel fragmentation prompted “sporadic and diverse” incidents, including battles between the major combatants and among subgroups, and against civilians. In short: More violence between the factions will mean increased civilian casualties, more of an incentive to develop self-protection militias and a rise in overall insecurity.
2) Division, before fading out — This is not the first time that the insurgency has splintered. In 2012, a group calling itself Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, which means “Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa,” broke away from Boko Haram and established itself as Ansaru. This organization was led by Khalid al-Barnawi (no apparent relation to Abu Musab al-Barnawi).
Ansaru lodged similar grievances against Boko Haram and Shekau, criticizing Boko Haram’s operations as indiscriminate and thus “inhuman to the Muslim ummah [nation].” Before fading out, Ansaru was involved in kidnapping Westerners and reportedly forged an allegiance with al-Qaeda.
Despite the animosity between the two sects, Ansaru and Boko Haram apparently did not engage in attacks against one another. In April 2016, the Nigerian government announced the capture of Khalid al-Barnawi, after years of relatively low levels of violence from Ansaru, ostensibly ending the group’s operations.
So the new ISWAP faction could follow in the footsteps of Ansaru, engaging in a handful of attacks against a different set of targets than Shekau’s faction before fading out or being absorbed back into the Shekau faction.
3) Coexistence, and the creation of a dual insurgency — In a third scenario, the new ISWAP faction will be a durable splinter group, capable of engaging in sustained violence against the targets of its choice. Mali saw this dynamic with the founding of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2011 as a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). In official statements, MUJAO’s leadership expressed a desire to expand the jihad’s geographic scope. Some analysts believe the MUJAO split was motivated by the marginalization of black African members under AQIM, whose leadership was largely Algerian.
MUJAO emerged as a terrorist threat in its own right, eventually joining forces with another al-Qaeda splinter group to form al-Mourabitoun. Though they left AQIM, these splinter groups have retained their alliances with al-Qaeda and regularly cooperate with other rebel groups in the region.
If this type of begrudging alliance, or laissez-faire relationship, plays out between the two Boko Haram factions in the Lake Chad Basin, the results could be catastrophic. This seems possible, as Shekau stated that his faction has “no desire to fight our Muslim brothers.”
Barnawi has also railed against Western aid as a way to “exploit the condition of those who are displaced under the raging war, providing them with food and shelter and then Christianizing their children.” Barnawi’s rhetoric could signal a shift in targeting; At present, Boko Haram has engaged in few attacks against Western or international targets.
This type of shift would be devastating to the Lake Chad Basin population, as international humanitarian aid to the region is both inadequate and slow to materialize.
Attacks on Western aid convoys could erode international efforts in the region or lead to a complete withdrawal. With more than 4.6 million people “severely food insecure,” a reduction in international aid is the last thing that this population can afford.
While it remains unclear how the factionalization of Boko Haram will manifest itself, none of these scenarios suggest an end to the fighting in this war-torn region. Experiences from other recent African conflicts suggest that the development of this Boko Haram splinter group will make it all the more difficult to put an end to the crisis.
Hilary Matfess is a research analyst focused on governance and security in sub-Saharan Africa and a researcher with the Nigeria Social Violence Project. Follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.