Abubakar Shekau: The Al-Qaeda-Islamic State Nexus

Over the course of my research into the nature and types of terrorist affiliations, I thought an examination on Boko Haram’s affiliations would be a worthwhile thought experiment for two reasons: firstly, I found myself asking the simple question of who Boko Haram is affiliated to, leading to the second reason which is the fact that Boko Haram has remarkably managed to manoeuvre through and benefitted from two major rival terrorist organisations, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, with no formal or prolonged commitments to either entities where at the heart of it lies its leader’s fixation on attaining supreme legitimacy and control.

There is a widely held assumption that Boko Haram was an Al-Qaeda affiliate before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. This comes off the back of evidence indicating the ideological inspiration and historical links of Boko Haram’s early leaders to Al-Qaeda such as its founder, Muhammed Ali, Yusuf Ahmed and Ibhrahim Harun. By the time they were killed in 2004, Boko Haram had established a camp named ‘Afghanistan’ in the town of Kanama located within Yobe state where it had acquired weapons and engaged in military training. In spite of their absence, Boko Haram maintained intrinsic links with the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) predecessor, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) through the involvement of Nigerians in the Algerian jihad as far back as 1994. Boko Haram member, Adam Kambar, is said to have had direct links with then Al-Qaeda deputy, Ayman Zawahiri and trained with Muhammed Ali in a GSPC camp in 2002. However, the death of then Boko Haram leader, Muhammad Yusuf in 2009 precipitated clashes between his followers and Nigerian security forces. By invitation of the AQIM leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, Boko Haram fighters retreated into the Sahel where they received military training and financial support. Boko Haram emerged in 2010 with demonstrably new and improved tactics under Abubakar Shekau who sought to formalise Boko Haram’s affiliation to Al-Qaeda by writing to Zawahiri and sending Khalid al-Barnawi and Abu Muhammed to AQIM for an appeal to formally accept an affiliation on their behalf. However, this never materialised, and Boko Haram continued to benefit from the operational benefits of cooperation with AQIM largely supported by an intersection of interests, shared ideological outlook and the region’s porous borders.

In an unconventional attempt to serve Boko Haram’s unrequited appeal to be a formal Al-Qaeda affiliate, AQIM made a public overture stating “we are ready to train your children to  use weapons and will supply them with all we can, including support and men, weapons, ammunitions and equipment, in order to defend our people in Nigeria”(Gourley, 2012: 8). This was reciprocated by Muhammed Abu Bakr bin Muhammed al-Shakwa, who pledged bayat to Droukdel, which has been interpreted as an ‘indirect’ pledge to Al-Qaeda’s leadership, thus establishing Boko Haram as an Al-Qaeda affiliate. However, this is contrary to the well-established process of formal affiliations demonstrated by Al-Qaeda as well as Islamic State affiliates which necessitate an initial pledge of loyalty by the leader of the ‘subsidiary’ organisation to the leader of the officiating organisation that does so by public acceptance of the pledge. Furthermore, because AQIM has tended to operate in the Sahel and West Africa, the late senior Al-Qaeda official, Abu Yahya al-Libi, crediting AQIM with “expanding the jihad to Nigeria” in a video in October 2010, is indicative of Al-Qaeda finding no reason to add another affiliate to the region and opting to maintain AQIM’s hegemony (Zenn, 2018).

This occurred against the backdrop of an emerging faction led by Khalid al-Barnawi, Mamman Nur and Abu Muhammed. Their ideological, strategic and operational outlook favoured inter-continental cooperation with AQIM and other Al-Qaeda affiliates including Al-Shabaab, which saw Boko Haram instigate its first suicide bombings of the Federal Police headquarters and the United Nations building in 2011. Although the attacks marked a new development in Boko Haram’s capabilities, Shekau had members who trained with AQIM and Al-Shabaab killed. Further, Shekau declared takfir on civilians who were not or unwilling to join his organisation that resulted in an increasing spate of indiscriminate violence which included the killing of Muslims. Therefore, Shekau was uncontrollable and increasingly too radical for segments of his own organisation and his operational associate, AQIM. In spite of evidence of Boko Haram’s improved capacity, Shekau arguably was not in favour of any cooperation that was not initiated and functioning under his control. Without the obligation of a formal affiliation, the Boko Haram leader operated his organisation the way he saw fit.

In 2011, an independent AQIM-backed faction known as Ansaru led by Khalid al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur emerged but succumbed to Shekau’s control under the pressure of being targeted by Boko Haram militants and Nigerian security forces. Shekau’s ego approached a crescendo in late 2014 when his organisation began acquiring control of towns such as Gwoza, bordering Cameroon, Ngala, south of Lake Chad, Gamboru and the town of Bama inhabiting approximately 300 000 people, merely 60 kilometres southeast from Maiduguri. Mimicking the Islamic State, Boko Haram planted the jihadist black flag (rayat al-uqab) over public buildings overlooking towns and participated in public displays of grotesque violence to make an example of those who failed to adhere to its Islamist prescripts. The same year Boko Haram was infamously responsible for the kidnapping of almost 300 girls from the town of Chibok, and rose to jihadi stardom with the instigation of mass casualty attacks resulting in the organisation’s recognition as the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation in 2014. Demonstrably inspired by the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Shekau declared a caliphate in north-eastern Nigeria, and began a process of positioning his organisation towards becoming an Islamic State affiliate. This included expressing support and recognition of the Islamic State leader as ‘caliph’, the inclusion of rayat al-uqab in its own logo featuring crossed guns and the Koran as well as the Islamic State’s anthem, ‘My Umma, Dawn has Arrived. In 2015, Shekau announced a pledge stating “we announce our allegiance to the Caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity”, which was promptly accepted within a matter of days by the Islamic State (Pham, 2016: 24). The strategic logic of the hurried union was plain to see, as the Islamic State had already began experiencing tactical losses at the time of formalising its affiliation with its newly established West African Province (ISWAP). For the Islamic State, its potential demise in Syria and Iraq for the time being would necessitate regional affiliates that would offer an alternative safe haven for its fighters to re-organise and resurface much like AQIM did for Boko Haram in 2009. Furthermore, similar to when Al-Qaeda’s central leadership began approaching its demise following the U.S military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the establishment of local affiliates advanced the Islamic State’s image as an ever-expanding global threat in the face of mounting losses. On the other hand, Shekau and his organisation received the legitimacy he sought but never attained from Al-Qaeda, and was able to pose ISWAP as more than a threat in Nigeria but part of a global movement with an integral role to play within its region.

Shekau’s narcissistic, dictatorial and ruthlessly brutal leadership style was not lost on him even following his first and only recognized pledge. In 2016, the Islamic State revived the existing factions between al-Barnawi and Shekau’s followers by replacing the former as ISWAP’s new leader in 2016. The refusal by Shekau to accept the new role of al-Barnawi led to a split between the two factions where the former is widely recognised (perhaps for analyses sake) to be the leader of Boko Haram (short of any evidence pointing to Shekau recanting his pledge) whereas al-Barnawi received formal backing of the Islamic State until early this year where he was replaced by Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar Al Barnawi, shortly after it was alleged that Mamman Nur was killed by his own commanders. Although the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) speculates whether the killing and subsequent dethronement of these two key figures is any indication of ISWAP developing into an organisation akin to Shekau’s degree of radicalism to where one may speculate around the possibility of a reunification or cooperation between the two factions in the future, the central figure establishing and shaping the nature of Boko Haram’s affiliations is Shekau.

To conclude, considering Boko Haram against some of the existing literature on terror affiliations that I’ve come across, two major things stand out: Firstly, there is a relational framework widely perpetuated around the relationship between Al-Qaeda/the Islamic State and its affiliates where there is a perception of the latter being passive recipients of the former’s resources when this isn’t always necessarily the case. Much to Shekau’s annoyance, the cooperation between Boko Haram, AQIM and Al-Shabaab in 2011 demonstrated the ability of African Al-Qaeda affiliates to contribute to the capacity of one of their partners without the assistance of Al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Secondly, simply not enough attention is paid to the role leaders of ‘subsidiary’ terrorist organisations play in determining, establishing and developing the nature of their organisation’s affiliations. Much is written on Osama bin Laden’s reluctant and cautious approach to formally establishing affiliates in comparison to Zawahiri who is widely recognised as a leader who could be approached in this regard. However, in what appears be a relational dynamic between a requesting and officiating party, Shekau demonstrated that although he followed similar procedures, he ultimately remains in control of the nature of his organisation’s affiliations.

Featured Image Source: Breitbart (2017): Report: Boko Haram Chief Resurfaces Threatening World Leaders in Video by Edwin Mora, https://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2017/03/19/report-new-video-purportedly-features-boko-haram-chief-threatening-world-leaders/


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