Nigeria Claims Local Islamic State Leader Killed

NIGERIA, UNKNOWN : A screen grab made on January 20, 2015 from a video of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau holding up a flag as he delivers a message. Boko Haram has claimed a …
AFP PHOTO / BOKO HARAM

The Nigerian military on Thursday announced Abu Musab al-Barnawi, leader of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), has been killed. No details of Barawi’s death were provided, and there was no immediate confirmation from ISWAP.

“I can authoritatively confirm to you that al-Barnawi is dead. As simple as that. He is dead and remains dead,” Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Lucky Irabor said at a press conference on Thursday.

Despite Gen. Irabor’s emphatic statement, Al Jazeera News noted that Nigerian military commanders have a history of claiming to kill terrorist leaders, “only for them to reappear.” The general’s “dead and remains dead” formulation looks like an assurance that Barnawi will not be reappearing.

Voice of America News (VOA) cited reports that Barnawi “had been fatally wounded during clashes with yet another rival extremist faction.”

Barnawi was a cofounder and early leader of Boko Haram, the infamous gang of murderers and kidnappers that perpetrated the Chibok mass abduction in 2014, among many other atrocities. 

Control of Boko Haram was eventually taken by Abubakar Shekau, who gained infamy in the West by releasing bizarre videotaped statements. 

Shekau is a prime example of militant leaders repeatedly declared dead by the Nigerian government, only to resurface months or years later. In 2016, Shekau declared himself dead in one of his weird videos, but he lingered on until May 2021, when Barnawi’s breakaway faction of Boko Haram finally managed to kill him.

Barnawi broke away from Boko Haram in 2013, initially joining a militia called Ansaru that had ties to al-Qaeda. Shekau pledged Boko Haram’s allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, but a year later the ISIS high command decided it preferred Barnawi and named him “governor” of its African territory.

Barnawi formed a splinter group called “Islamic State in West Africa Province” and launched a bitter factional battle against Shekau’s rump Boko Haram, which also called itself ISWAP for a time, before rebranding as Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). 

This was the name chosen for the group by its founding leader, Barnawi’s father Mohammed Yusuf, before the insurgents settled on the pithier name Boko Haram. The original name means “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad” in Arabic, while Boko Haram means “Western Learning Is Forbidden.” Most foreign observers continue referring to Shekau loyalists as Boko Haram.

As VOA noted, ISWAP initially distinguished itself from Boko Haram by targeting the Nigerian military instead of random villagers, and by pledging to avoid attacks on mosques – a habit of Shekau’s supposedly frowned upon by top ISIS leaders. Soon ISWAP expanded into “targeting civilians working for international aid organizations in the northeast in a series of kidnappings and killings.”

According to Barnawi, Shekau was deemed an “apostate” against Islam by ISIS leadership, which tasked Barnawi’s cell with hunting him down. ISWAP claims Barnawi ran away from a losing battle against its forces and killed himself with a suicide bomb vest to avoid capture.

After Shekau was liquidated, thousands of his Boko Haram loyalists chose to surrender to the Nigerian government instead of switching allegiance to Barnawi. The Nigerian commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad region said earlier this week that “about 3,000 Boko Haram members have surrendered” since the beginning of August.

Some Boko Haram fighters remain active in the Lake Chad region claimed by ISWAP as its turf, periodically clashing with Barnawi’s forces. If Barnawi is indeed dead, he may have been killed in such a skirmish.

France24 on Thursday cited Nigerian media reports that said Barnawi was actually killed sometime in late August, but there are varying accounts of exactly how he died. Nigeria’s Daily Trust quoted some sources who said Barnawi was killed near Lake Chad by Nigerian troops, while others said he was ambushed by rivals during a power struggle within ISWAP.

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