Boko Haram leadership struggle heralds a new style of violence

The so-called West Africa Province of the Islamic State, more commonly known as Boko Haram, has recently generated headlines once again after Abu Musab al-Barnawi was appointed as new leader of the group, replacing long-time head Abubakar Shekau. The decision seems to have sparked a power struggle between Islamic State-backed al-Barnawi and Shekau, bringing to the fore deep fissures within the movement.

At the same time, security forces battling the militants in the Lake Chad Basin have made large gains over the past year. In addition to the liberation of most territories that had fallen under Boko Haram's control, the organisation’s attack radius has shrunk.

Research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that so far in 2016, violent incidents that can be linked to Boko Haram have been limited to the three north-eastern Nigerian states that are currently in a state of emergency as a result of the insurgency (Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa) – and the neighbouring areas of Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Moreover, 80% of these attacks have been restricted to Borno state and bordering areas of northern Cameroon, further pointing to a diminished operating space for the militants. Dating back to last year, the last major incident to buck these patterns was a November 2015 attack on a gathering of Shiite worshippers in Kano state.

Boko Haram’s attack radius has shrunk, and the number of suicide attacks has fallen

Once a staple of the violence enacted by Boko Haram, the number of suicide attacks has also fallen. Some 32 attacks were recorded between December 2015 and January this year. The period from June to July, however, only saw five incidents.

This is all the more surprising given that this span included the month of Ramadan; typically a time of increased violence. For instance, 19 recorded suicide attacks took place during Ramadan last year.

The frequency of suicide attacks using women has seen a similar decline in recent months. According to additional research conducted by the ISS, only one female suicide attack occurred over the past three months, down from a high of 11 in July 2015. It is not unusual for Boko Haram violence to ebb and flow, but these nascent developments are a positive sign for the region.

Sustained pressure by security forces from Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria – some of which has been coordinated under the Multi-National Joint Task Force – can help explain these trends. Operations have targeted capabilities by disrupting safe havens, training facilities and bomb-making factories.

After Cameroon suffered 15 suicide bomb attacks between December 2015 and January 2016, national forces were able to stem the tide by clearing the Nigerian border towns of Ngoshe, Kumshe, and Madawaya, as well as others in the Lake Chad area. A July 2016 campaign in Cameroon destroyed 10 bomb-making factories, while the Ngoshe operation reportedly targeted a location where female suicide bombers were trained and housed.

Patrols by vigilante units have at times prevented militants from reaching their targets

The offensive in Madawaya also targeted a training camp set up by militants who had fled from other areas, indicating the need to maintain pressure and prevent regrouping. These offensives have enjoyed success to the point where just one suicide attack has occurred in Cameroon since June 2016.

Patrols by vigilante units have also resulted in the detection of would-be bombers, in some cases preventing militants from reaching their intended targets.

First emerging among communities in Borno state fed up with a Boko Haram presence, vigilantes are now present throughout the region, and have become more active in northern Cameroon. The Borno state government has embraced this type of community policing, providing training and other support. Some units are highly organised, while many operate on a more informal basis.

The role of vigilante groups has, however, not been without controversy. In northern Cameroon, a few vigilante leaders have even been arrested recently for suspected links to Boko Haram. Nonetheless, these volunteers have provided a degree of security, with a number of successes in preventing suicide attacks.

An exception to these positive trends, however, can be seen in attacks such as the early June 2016 assault in the southern Niger town of Bosso. In this attack, Boko Haram fighters overpowered security forces, briefly taking control of the town. The Bosso incident was preceded by another major attack targeting the Nigerian Army in the relatively nearby town of Kareto in April, and was followed by an operation targeting a Nigerian military base and police station in Yunusari in early June.

The leadership change in Boko Haram could lead to an increase in direct confrontations

Such incidents might indicate an increased focus on large-scale, direct engagements with security forces. These attacks also seem consistent with what the group’s new leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, has been advocating, suggesting the involvement of his followers.

In a similar vein, the first video released by al-Barnawi’s media wing after his appointment showed militants directly confronting and killing security personnel.

Messaging from the Islamic State has followed a similar pattern. Islamic State media operatives have promoted nine Boko Haram attacks via social media since early June. Each of these attacks also claimed to target security forces – further demonstrating the Islamic State and al-Barnawi’s focus on this type of violence.  

Subsequently, the change in leadership within Boko Haram could bring about an increase in direct confrontations, and conversely a decline in the widespread, indiscriminate bomb attacks that have largely targeted civilians, including Muslims.

Shekau, for his part, has remained steadfast in his views on the permissibility of such indiscriminate targeting and may seek to continue these attacks – but his replacement by al-Barnawi signals a strategic shift.

Trends like continued reductions in suicide attacks are a positive development, but should not be seen to reflect the entire security situation in the region. While certain security indicators have improved over the past year in the Lake Chad Basin, a return to more direct engagements – combined with Boko Haram’s ability to push to new areas, like Bosso – shows that complacency must be avoided.

Rather than signal a death knell for the movement, the latest leadership change in Boko Haram will likely result in additional modifications by an adversary that has proven highly adaptable. If recent successes and gains are to be sustained, this will require further adjustments by regional security actors.

Omar S Mahmood, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS Pretoria

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