The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has replaced its commander and chief, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, naming Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi as the new region commander. The former commander’s father was none other than Muhammad Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram. It raises the question: has the Islamic State just killed al-Barnawi?
Mamman Nur and al-Barnawi created ISWAP in late 2016. The reason for their separation was reportedly the behavior of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, who thought everyone not devoted to him or battling with his group was an infidel. Nur and al-Barnawi, the offspring of Boko Haram’s architect, believed that was too broad of a definition, so they broke away and swore obedience to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Nur trained with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahle and with al-Shabaab in Somalia. He favored a pan-African jihad to replace sinful secular regimes with the rule of God. Three months after establishing the group, Nur was assassinated by his own members over payment for a kidnapping task the group had performed in 2016.
Given the group’s record of dealing with its leaders, it is feasible ISWAP murdered al-Barnawi. The Islamic State announced a new successor to the throne in quick succession. With no reference to al-Barnawi, one wonders if he was executed, because if he had been killed in battle, the Islamic State would aim to exploit his death.
Another theory is that he has defected to Boko Haram and is under the protection of Abubakar Shekau. After all, Boko Haram is his father’s legacy and al-Barnawi is the rightful successor to lead the group. It’s possible Shekau has a sense of loyalty and devotion to him since his father co-founded Boko Haram.
Looking to the future, this could be problematic for members of ISWAP. A different commander taking control can lead to chaos. He will want to prove his devotion to the Islamic State and show he is a strong ruler.
The name al-Barnawi comes from the Arabic word meaning “the man from Borno,” a state in northeastern Nigeria.