The deposed leader of an IS-backed faction of Boko Haram has been detained by more radical elements who seized control of the group, three well-informed sources have told AFP.
Uncertainty has surrounded the fate of Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi after he was replaced as leader of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) last month.
An audio recording about his removal appeared online some two weeks ago, sparking speculation as to whether he was still alive or dead.
Three sources told AFP last week that Al-Barnawi had been deposed while the regional military force fighting the jihadists in northeast Nigeria has also acknowledged the development.
Colonel Timothy Antigha, spokesman for the N’Djamena-based Multinational Joint Task Force, said the change of leadership was the result of an “internal crisis”. “The Islamic State West Africa Province announced the sack of Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi and the appointment of Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar Albarnawi,” he added in a statement.
One source with knowledge of the group’s activities told AFP the deposed leader was now “in the custody of the new leadership”. “It was a bloodless coup. They made him abdicate and put him in detention,” said the source, who asked not to be identified for his personal safety.
ISWAP commanders met on February 28 in Kwalaram, one of the group’s camps in the Lake Chad area, where they took a unanimous decision to replace Al-Barnawi. The source said they accused him of having close links with more moderate jihadists in Mali.
The Kwalaram meeting was attended by all ISWAP commanders, who came in speedboats from different camps on and around the vast freshwater lake. A second source said the meeting was convened to prevent dissent in the ranks.
“They have not killed him, they only put him in detention as their aim was only to get him out of the way,” he said.
“He is still being held and it is unlikely they will harm him for now.” ISWAP’s new leadership was wary about the emergence of a splinter group of fighters loyal to Al-Barnawi if he were executed, said the second source.
Al-Barnawi, who is in his mid-20s, is the son of Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf and enjoyed special recognition among followers. Killing him could cause disaffection and be seen as a betrayal of Yusuf, who is still venerated by all Boko Haram factions, including that led by his one-time deputy, Abubakar Shekau.
“The new leadership knows the possible consequence of killing Al-Barnawi as they did to Mamman Nur,” a third source said, referring to the deposed ISWAP head’s number two.
If another breakaway faction appeared, Al-Barnawi’s life would be in danger, the first source warned.
IS recognised Barnawi as head of ISWAP after a split from Shekau in mid-2016 over the latter’s indiscriminate violence against civilians.
ISWAP, which has been blamed for or claimed a spate of attacks against the Nigerian military in recent months, went through internal turmoil after the execution of Mamman Nur last year.
Nur, a former Yusuf confidant, was the mastermind of the 2011 bombing of the UN building in Abuja that killed 26 and was widely seen as de facto head of ISWAP.
He was killed in August last year after more radical fighters accused him of pocketing an alleged ransom for the release of more than 100 schoolgirls from the Yobe town of Dapchi. They were also angry with Nur’s more moderate approach and back-channel talks with Nigeria’s government, which is seeking an end to the conflict after nearly 10 years and an estimated 27,000 deaths.
The new leadership saw Al-Barnawi as a continuation of Nur’s softer approach and decided to edge him out, the third source said. “Killing Al-Barnawi is not on the table, just as killing Nur was not on the table before the ransom disagreement,” the source said. “But everything can change depending on the fallout of the leadership change.