In naming new leader, has ISIS fractured Boko Haram?

Last spring, Boko Haram splintered. ISIS may be pinning its hopes for reconciliation on a new leader.

Militant Video/AP/File
This May 12, image taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, shows former leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State announced a new leader for its West African affiliate Boko Haram on Wednesday, featuring an interview with him in its Arabic-language newspaper.

In the interview, appointee Abu Musab al-Barnawi – who appeared in a January 2015 video as the group’s spokesman – described plans to bomb churches and kill Christians, and insisted that the group remained potent, despite military campaigns over the last year and a half that have seen regional governments seize much of Boko Haram’s territory, reported Al-Jazeera.

But just hours after the interview was published, a recorded message surfaced from former leader Abubakar Shekau accusing Mr. al-Barnawi of staging a coup against him, unsettling the coronation and throwing into doubt the future of the group.

In the recording, the first from Mr. Shekau since last August, he accuses members of the group of being polytheists, and of interfering with his communications with IS leadership.

"I was asked to send my ideology in writing to the caliph but it was manipulated by some people in order to achieve their own selfish interests," he said in describing a coup attempt against him, according to a translation from the BBC.

It’s unclear what the split could mean for the insurgency’s future. It still appears determined to sow chaos in remote parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Last week, an ambush on a humanitarian convoy caused the United Nations to announce the suspension of aid in parts of Nigeria’s Borno state, where as many as half a million people are in danger of starvation.

“This was not only an attack on humanitarian workers. It is an attack on the people who most need the assistance and aid that these workers were bringing,” said UNICEF in a statement.

Shekau, who took the reins following the death of the group’s founder in 2009, pledged allegiance to the IS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015. At the time, experts predicted that the pledge would invite both greater legitimacy and better financing for the insurgency.

It seems to have played out differently. In June, US officials have said that they had detected no significant financial or operational support from IS.

"If there is no meaningful connection between ISIL and Boko – and we haven't found one so far – then there are no grounds for U.S. military involvement in West Africa other than assistance and training," an official told Reuters in a June 9 report.

Mr. Shekau, meanwhile, may have fallen afoul with IS leaders, splintering the affiliate in the process. In late June, Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told the US Senate at his confirmation hearing that Boko Haram had suffered a major internal division last spring. 

“Several months ago, about half of Boko Haram broke off to a separate group because they were not happy with the amount of buy-in, if you will, from Boko Haram into the ISIL brand," he said.

IS leadership, he added, were trying to reconcile the two sides. Shekau had made that difficult, refusing to “[fall] into line with what ISIL would like him to do.”

“For example, he uses children as suicide bombers, he attacks other Muslims. And he’s been told by ISIL to stop doing that, but he has not done so. And that’s one of the reasons why this splinter group has broken off.”

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