Boko Haram Pledges to Attack Christians After Leadership Shakeup
Nigerian Muslim groups urge members to stand with Christian neighbors
by KEVIN KNODELL
It’s been a bad year for Boko Haram. The West African terrorist group and Islamic State affiliate has suffered a series of defeats as regional armies have come together in a campaign to destroy it. Thousands of cautious refugees are returning to their homes in liberated areas.
But Boko Haram is not defeated. August saw a leadership shakeup and a shift in strategy that could mean a new phase of the insurgency. Members of the group are pledging to attack Christian churches and cease targeting fellow Muslims.
Many Nigerian Muslims, who have suffered attacks from the Islamists for years, aren’t impressed. On the contrary, several Muslim organizations have called on their communities to protect their Christian neighbors from what could be a new round of violence.
In August 2016, the Islamic State released a video announcing that it had appointed a new leader for Boko Haram. Abu Mus’ab Al Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf, replaced longtime leader Abubakar Shekau.
But it’s not quite that simple. Boko Haram, which has fought the Nigerian government since 2009, only recently pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
To make matters more confusing, Shekau released a response video in which he rejected the change in the leadership, but reasserted his commitment … to the Islamic State. It goes to show that even terrorist groups have problems with mixed messaging.
“We have not reneged on our professed loyalty in the leadership of Al Baghdadi. We are still with him,” Shekau declared. “But we will not entertain any middle man to come between us and the Caliph Al Baghdadi until we meet face to face with the Caliph or get a video or audio message from him.”
But the confusing leadership shakeup is not so surprising. Boko Haram is becoming more factionalized — and possibly more unpredictable and dangerous. The Nigerian government has put the country on high alert for more attacks.
“It seems the government is expecting the factions to outbid each other in an effort to gain attention and show relevance,” observed O.E. Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office
To make matters worse, Shekau vowed to change tactics in a possible effort to remain in the good graces of the Islamic State’s leaders in Syria.
“Local Muslim groups in Nigeria have interpreted the appointment of Al Barnawi as the new head of Boko Haram as a particularly dangerous phenomenon for Nigeria’s Christian communities,” O.E. Watch noted. “Both Shekau’s faction and Al Barnawi’s factions look to cease targeting Muslims, and instead focus on Christians.”
Boko Haram — the name means “Western education is sinful” — frequently attacks schools and students, most of whom are Muslim. The group has terrorized northern Nigeria for years and gained international notoriety with the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in 2014.
“A large part of ISIS’ appointment of Al Barnawi relates to Boko Haram’s refusal to abide by ISIS dictates that it not attack Muslims, which [Shekau] did unabashedly,” O.E. Watch stated. “In promising to halt (or limit) attacks on Muslims, Shekau has sought to ramp up efforts against other adversaries.”
But the Islamic State also has a long record of attacking Muslims, and kills more Muslims than any other group. The terror group is on a genocidal campaign to kill Shia Muslims, and its definition of apostasy is infamously broad.
The group carries out brutal collective punishments in its territories, and is perfectly willing to kill fellow Sunnis, according to refugees who have escaped. However, inciting division between Muslims and other groups is an important part of the Islamic State’s strategy of destroying the “gray zone,” or pluralistic spaces where people of different faiths can coexist.
“Both Abubakar Shekau and Al Barnawi are mercurial personalities bent on destructive, hate-filled violence aimed at drowning out the voices of normative Islam and cultivating a real hatred in the hearts of those outside of Islam,” Disu Kamor of the Muslim Public Affairs Center Nigeria said in a statement.
It would be a shrewd choice for Boko Haram, which has suffered a humiliating series of defeats during the last year. The new tactic could re-energize its wavering momentum.
“We urge Muslims in the country to demonstrate solidarity with their Christian neighbors by ensuring that Boko Haram elements are not allowed to launch attacks on Christians in their neighborhood,” Isiaq Akintola of the Nigerian group Muslim Rights Concern wrote. “We have a duty to defend our Christian neighbors at this critical stage.”
Nigeria isn’t the only place in Africa where Muslim and Christian communities have had to confront terrorism together. In December 2015, militants in Kenya’s northeastern Mandera county boarded a bus and demanded the passengers get off. They next attempted to separate the passengers into two groups — Muslims and non-Muslims.
The Mandera region is known for its large population of ethnic Somali Kenyans, most of whom are Muslim. The militants — likely members of Al Shabab — told the group that the Muslims were free to get back on the bus and leave.
But the group refused to be broken up, and the Muslims refused to help identify Christian passengers.
Salah Farah, an ethnic Somali school teacher wounded in the attack who later died, told the militants to either kill the entire group or leave.
“We are brothers,” Farah told reporters before his death. “It’s only the religion that is the difference, so I ask my brother Muslims to take care of the Christians so that the Christians also take care of us … and let us help one another and let us live together peacefully.”
The mobilization of Muslim groups to confront terrorism is encouraging, and demonstrates the resilience of African communities. But it’s a sobering reminder that Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabab continue to endure — and terrorize communities.