“Abu Musab is dead. As simple as that. He is dead and remains dead.”
These were the words of General Lucky Irabor, the chief of defence staff, when he confirmed – at a press briefing on Thursday, October 14, at the presidential villa in Abuja – that Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, the leader of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), was dead.
“I can authoritatively confirm to you that Abu Musab is dead. As simple as that. He is dead and remains dead,” Irabor told reporters, without elaborating.
No details about the circumstances of Al-Barnawi’s death were given and there had been no word from ISWAP.
Reports said Al-Barnawi had actually died in August, but the Nigerian military had confirmed his death only on Thursday.
Al-Barnawi was the eldest son of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, who died in police custody in 2009 when the Boko Haram uprising began.
The group’s official name is Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’way Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the [Prophet’s] Teachings and Jihad”, but it is more commonly referred to as Boko Haram.
When Yusuf died, Abubakar Shekau took over the leadership of the JAS.
According to the BBC, Al-Barnawi served as a spokesman for the group but frequently clashed with Shekau and, in 2013, he defected to Ansaru – a Boko Haram offshoot with ties to al-Qaeda. Ansaru members are said to be mostly foreign-trained Nigerian militants.
In an effort to help raise Boko Haram’s international profile, Shekau had sworn allegiance to the IS in March 2015. But the following year IS named Al-Barnawi as Boko Haram’s new wali (Arabic for governor), causing a major internal feud. Shekau reportedly accused Al-Barnawi of fomenting a coup.
As a result of the infighting, those loyal to IS joined the breakaway ISWAP, led by Al-Barnawi, while Shekau stayed on as head of the JAS. The groups had since been staunch rivals.
More than 40,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict since 2009, millions of people had been displaced from their homes and countless communities had been destroyed by the violence, which spread from northeastern Nigeria into neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad, destabiliing the Lake Chad Basin. Vicious attacks throughout the region continue.
According to the BBC, ISWAP had announced that Shekau had died in May after fleeing from a battle with its fighters. Instead of surrendering, Shekau reportedly detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and others instantly.
Al-Barnawi reportedly said of Shekau’s death: “When it was time, Allah set out brave soldiers after receiving orders from the leader of the believers.”
Security sources said that since Shekau’s death, Al-Barnawi had consolidated ISWAP’s control in the northeast and the Lake Chad region but pockets of JAS loyalists had been fighting back.
They said Shekau’s death had severely weakened the JAS. In recent months thousands of its fighters had surrendered to the Nigerian military and were seeking rehabilitation and to be reinstated into their communities.
Al-Barnawi took over the leadership of ISWAP in 2016, splitting the group into two factions. It was reported that IS chose Al-Barnawi as leader in the Lake Chad Basin to punish Shekau, who reportedly “violated all known norms”. They also wanted to retain the confidence of Boko Haram fighters who were loyal to his father, Yusuf.
Al-Barnawi was said to have been trained by IS for years ahead of his ascension to power.
Before his death, Shekau, who was declared wanted by the United States with a price on his head, had led the JAS faction with its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest in Borno State and part of the Mandara Mountains, which extend about 190km along the northern part of the Cameroon-Nigerian border.
At the same time, Al-Barnawi was committing atrocious attacks, his focus especially on military facilities and troops in the Lake Chad Basin. But he was also strategising on how to subdue Shekau.
Al-Barnawi controlled large swathes of territory in northern Borno, imposed taxes on the local population and earned money fishing. ISWAP also got financial and material support from the IS.
Al-Barnawi’s fighters have destroyed many military camps in Dikwa, Monguno, Abadam and Marte in Borno; and other military facilities around Geidam in Yobe State.
He established cells on the Lake Chad islands and surrounding villages from where his fighters launched attacks on Nigeria, Niger and Chad. ISWAP entrenched itself in the area by digging wells, giving out seeds and fertiliser to farmers and providing safe pasture for herders, Reuters reported in 2018. The fighters clashed with the armed forces but not with the local population.
His death in August, after that of Shekau in May, was seen as a turning point in the war against terror.
Security experts had called for a sustained offensive aimed at decimating the two rival groups and to finally achieve a lasting peace after 12 years of carnage and insecurity.
Irabor said that despite the massive surrender by Boko Haram fighters in recent months, security forces should not take anything for granted. He said there were still many fighters who believed in the cause and they would recover lost grounds, given half the chance.
At the news briefing, Irabor said that insecurity, as with other threats especially in the north of the country, “are not confined to boundaries”, adding that the Nigerian government would continue to work closely with its neighboring countries in the “fight against terrorism and other forms of criminality”.
“If all is well in our home and is not well with our neighbour then, of course, we can’t have peace,” he told journalists.
There was not much information about Al-Barnawi – not even on his age or appearance.
He was seen as relatively moderate, shunning Boko Haram’s more extreme policies, such as using children as suicide bombers and the indiscriminate targeting of Muslims.
IS newspaper al-Nabaa published an interview with Al-Barnawi in August 2016. In it, he described the group’s battle with West African states as one against “apostates” and “crusaders”. He threatened, as leader, to order the killing of Christians and the bombing of churches. But in a major shift in strategy for the group, he pledged to end indiscriminate attacks on mosques and markets and instead focus on military and security targets.