Boko Haram is at war with itself. Reports are surfacing from Nigeria’s remote northeast that rival factions of the Islamic State affiliate, one loyal to longtime leader Abubakar Shekau and another loyal to newly-minted leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi, have begun engaging in fatal clashes in rural areas.
Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper reports that villagers near the Lake Chad area of Borno state are reporting having to flee from their homes in fear as Boko Haram terrorists fight each other. According to Vanguard, “several fighters from Shekau’s camp were said to have been killed in two separate gun battles with IS-backed Barnawi gunmen in the Monguno area of Borno state near Lake Chad” on Thursday.
The newspaper cites a witness testimony taken by the Agence France-Presse. A man named Mele Kaka told the agency that the Barnawi loyalists were the ones to attack first, forcing civilians in the village of Yele to flee. “In Yele, the assailants killed three people from the Shekau camp, injured one and took one with them, while several were killed in Arafa,” he said. “The Barnawi fighters told villagers after each attack that they were fighting the other camp because they had derailed from the true jihad and were killing innocent people, looting their property and burning their homes.”
The in-fighting appears to have triggered a minor wave of surrenders. Bloomberg reports Thursday that Nigerian police made public the surrender of 18 Boko Haram terrorists. “They are under custody of Monguno command and we believe the dual battle between Albarnawi and Shekau’s camps may have compelled them to sneak out and surrender,” anti-Boko Haram vigilante Ali Mohammed confirmed. Vanguard also notes the surrender of a high-profile Boko Haram supporter, Muhammed Bulama, who worked raising cattle to sell to fund the terrorist group’s activities.
The conflict within the group appears to have arisen from an Islamic State publication. Boko Haram became an official wing of the Islamic State — renaming itself the Islamic State West Africa Province — in April 2015. Leader Abubakar Shekau had remained in captivity since then, making few recordings for the public, until August, when an official Islamic State publication referred to Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the “governor” of the West Africa Province. Some outlets have identified al-Barnawi as the son of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram. Shekau took over when Yusuf was killed in 2009, turning Boko Haram into the internationally-recognized terror syndicate it is today.
In the publication referring to al-Barnawi as “governor,” the new leader argues against some of the terrorist tactics that made Shekau’s Boko Haram famous, particularly the indiscriminate use of suicide bombers to target mosques and marketplaces where Muslims can be killed. He made clear the new aim of Boko Haram would be “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that [they] are able to reach, and killing all of those who [they] find from the citizens of the Cross.”
Shekau responded to the interview by releasing an audio message in the Hausa language, in which he asserted that he was “still around” and that “We will never cause any discord among the people, we will live by the Koran.” He also said of those who worked to turn Boko Haram into an Islamic State wing, “they deceived me.” “And now I find myself being forced to follow another character who practices disbelief,” he laments, apparently referring to ISIS caliph Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.