Abu Musab al-Barnawi

Abu Musab al-Barnawi was the U.S.-designated, ISIS-appointed leader of Boko Haram. On August 2, 2016—in the 41st issue of its al-Naba magazine—ISIS announced that al-Barnawi had assumed leadership of the Nigerian terror group.“قطـع طريـق إمـداد الرافضـة إلـى معسـكر القيارة,” al-Naba, August 2, 2016, 8, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/the-islamic-state-e2809cal-nabacc84_-newsletter-4122.pdf. Two days after the announcement, Boko Haram’s long-time leader Abubakar Shekau released an audio message denying the leadership change. Shekau reportedly referred to ISIS’s announcement as a coup, and claimed that ISIS had not responded to messages warning that al-Barnawi was an “infidel” teaching “false creeds.”Associated Press, “Abubakar Shekau says he still leads Boko Haram,” USA Today, August 4, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/08/04/shekau-boko-haram-islamic-state/88071714/;
“Isis tries to impose new leader on Boko Haram in Nigeria,” Guardian (London), August 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/05/isis-tries-to-impose-new-leader-on-boko-haram-in-nigeria.
Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016. Al-Barnawi led the faction loyal to ISIS, which became known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).Omar S Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Factional Dynamics within Boko Haram,” Institute for Security Studies, July 2018, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/2018-07-06-research-report-2.pdf. ISIS later replaced al-Barnawi as ISWAP’s leader in 2019 but later reappointed him to the position.Agence France-Presse, “Deposed Boko Haram leader detained not killed: sources,” France 24, March 15, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190315-deposed-boko-haram-leader-detained-not-killed-sources; Jacob Zenn, “ISWAP Launches Hearts and Minds Strategy to Counter Nigerian Army Offensive,” Jamestown Foundation, June 4, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/iswap-launches-hearts-and-minds-strategy-to-counter-nigerian-army-offensive/. On October 14, 2021, the Nigerian military released a statement confirming that al-Barnawi was dead.Chinedu Asadu, “Nigerian military says leader of IS-linked group is dead,” Associated Press, October 14, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/africa-chad-nigeria-islamic-state-group-boko-haram-6fcc3b1951a0bec957931e0f80279ab7.

Al-Barnawi was the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf. He previously served as the group’s spokesman, but reportedly defected in 2013 and joined Ansaru, Boko Haram’s dissident offshoot.Ludovica Iaccino, “Boko Haram splits as Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi fight for leadership,” International Business Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-splits-abubakar-shekau-abu-musab-al-barnawi-fight-leadership-1574271. Ansaru split from Boko Haram in 2012 because it reportedly disagreed with the group’s indiscriminate killing of Muslim civilians.“Boko Haram: Splinter group, Ansaru emerges,” Vanguard (Lagos), February 1, 2012, http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/02/boko-haram-splinter-group-ansaru-emerges;
Ludovica Iaccino, “Boko Haram splits as Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi fight for leadership,” International Business Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-splits-abubakar-shekau-abu-musab-al-barnawi-fight-leadership-1574271.
However, Ansaru and Boko Haram have worked together “towards a common goal,” according to security analyst David Otto.Ludovica Iaccino, “Boko Haram splits as Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi fight for leadership,” nternational Business Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-splits-abubakar-shekau-abu-musab-al-barnawi-fight-leadership-1574271. In January 2015, al-Barnawi appeared in a Boko Haram video as the group’s spokesman,Agence France-Presse, “IS welcomes Boko Haram allegiance: tape,” Yahoo News, March 12, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/accepts-allegiance-nigeria-jihadists-boko-haram-201513146.html. indicating cooperation between the two groups.

On August 3, 2016, ISIS announced al-Barnawi had assumed leadership of Boko Haram.“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711. Later that day, Shekau released an audio statement denying ISIS’s claim, and referred to the announcement as a coup.Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Doomed Marriage to the Islamic State,” War on the Rocks, August 26, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/08/boko-harams-doomed-marriage-to-the-islamic-state/; Maggie Fick, “Boko Haram dispute with Isis bursts into the open,” Financial Times, August 5, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/bed19ac2-5a61-11e6-8d05-4eaa66292c32. Following the announcement, the group split into two factions— a Shekau-led Boko Haram and a Barnawi-headed ISWAP.Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Fractional Dynamics within Boko Haram,” Institute for Security Studies,” July 2018, p. 15, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/2018-07-06-research-report-2.pdf.

In ISIS’s August 2016 article announcing Boko Haram’s new leadership, the newly elevated al-Barnawi reportedly threatened West African countries and referred to them as “crusaders.”“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711. He said that Boko Haram would cease attacks on mosques and markets, but that the group would target churches and murder Christians.Ludovica Iaccino, “Boko Haram splits as Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi fight for leadership,” International Business Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-splits-abubakar-shekau-abu-musab-al-barnawi-fight-leadership-1574271. ISIS made no mention of Shekau in its announcement regarding al-Barnawi.“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711;
“قطـع طريـق إمـداد الرافضـة إلـى معسـكر القيارة,” al-Naba, August 2, 2016, 8, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/the-islamic-state-e2809cal-nabacc84_-newsletter-4122.pdf.
Given al-Barnawi’s role in ISWAP, the U.S. Department of State designated al-Barnawi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) on February 28, 2018.“E.O. 13224 Designation of Abu Musab al-Barnawi aka Habib Yusuf as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, February 28, 2018, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/02/28/2018-04007/eo-13224-designation-of-abu-musab-al-barnawi-aka-habib-yusuf-as-a-specially-designated-global.

In February of 2019, al-Barnawi was reportedly removed as the leader of ISWAP. The move was allegedly in response to more radical members of ISWAP gaining control.“ISIS-backed Boko Haram faction allegedly gets new leader,” Punch, March 5, 2019, https://punchng.com/isis-backed-boko-haram-faction-allegedly-gets-new-leader/; “Deposed Boko Haram leader detained not killed: sources,” France 24, March 15, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190315-deposed-boko-haram-leader-detained-not-killed-sources. Al-Barnawi was reportedly placed in the custody of the group’s new leadership.“ISIS-backed Boko Haram faction allegedly gets new leader,” Punch, March 5, 2019, https://punchng.com/isis-backed-boko-haram-faction-allegedly-gets-new-leader/; “Deposed Boko Haram leader detained not killed: sources,” France 24, March 15, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190315-deposed-boko-haram-leader-detained-not-killed-sources. On March 4, 2019, Boko Haram announced that al-Barnawi was demoted to a member of the group’s shura council, and that Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi (a.k.a. Ba Idrissa) replaced him as leader.Jacob Zenn, “Who is the Leader of ISWAP? – Confusion Continues Over Leadership of Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor 10, no. 10, November 4, 2019, https://jamestown.org/brief/who-is-the-leader-of-iswap-confusion-continues-over-leadership-of-islamic-state-in-west-africa-province/. The leadership shake-up occurred against the backdrop of larger internal disputes within the organization. In early 2020, infighting within Boko Haram continued, and al-Barnawi’s successor, Ba Idrissa, was similarly purged.Jacob Zenn, “Islamic State in West Africa Province’s Factional Disputes and the Battle With Boko Haram,” The Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 18, no. 6, March 20, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/islamic-state-in-west-africa-provinces-factional-disputes-and-the-battle-with-boko-haram/. According to the Multinational Joint Task Force, the leadership change was the result of an “internal crisis.”Agence France-Presse, “Deposed Boko Haram leader detained not killed: sources,” France 24, March 15, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190315-deposed-boko-haram-leader-detained-not-killed-sources.

ISIS reinstalled al-Barnawi as leader of ISWAP in April 2021.Jacob Zenn, “ISWAP Launches Hearts and Minds Strategy to Counter Nigerian Army Offensive,” Jamestown Foundation, June 4, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/iswap-launches-hearts-and-minds-strategy-to-counter-nigerian-army-offensive/. ISWAP and Boko Haram continued to violently clash, resulting in the death of Boko Haram leader Shekau the following month in a confrontation with ISWAP fighters.“ISWAP militant group says Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader is dead,” Reuters, June 7, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/islamic-state-west-african-province-says-nigerias-boko-haram-leader-is-dead-2021-06-06/. In June 2021, ISWAP released an audio message of al-Barnawi confirming Shekau’s death, which he said had been directly ordered by ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.“ISWAP militant group says Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader is dead,” Reuters, June 7, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/islamic-state-west-african-province-says-nigerias-boko-haram-leader-is-dead-2021-06-06; Jason Burke, “Boko Haram leader killed on direct orders of Islamic State,” Guardian (London), June 7, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/07/boko-haram-leader-abubakar-shekau-killed-on-direct-orders-of-islamic-state.

On October 14, 2021, Nigeria’s military confirmed that al-Barnawi was killed. However, the military did not provide details of the location of or circumstances leading to al-Barnawi’s death.Chinedu Asadu, “Nigerian military says leader of IS-linked group is dead,” Associated Press, October 14, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/africa-chad-nigeria-islamic-state-group-boko-haram-6fcc3b1951a0bec957931e0f80279ab7.

United States

The U.S. Department of State designates Abu Musab al-Barnawi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on February 28, 2018.“E.O. 13224 Designation of Abu Musab al-Barnawi aka Habib Yusuf as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, February 28, 2018, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/02/28/2018-04007/eo-13224-designation-of-abu-musab-al-barnawi-aka-habib-yusuf-as-a-specially-designated-global.

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