The ISIS-backed Boko Haram faction could have a new boss

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The leaders of an Islamic State-backed faction of Boko Haram may have been replaced by speculation about their fate and the future direction of the group.

Three sources with deep knowledge of the group said they had been told in recent days that the province of West Africa (ISWAP) of the Islamic State of Abu Mus had dropped from Al-Barnawi.

A previously unknown person named Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar Albarnawi is said to have replaced Al-Barnawi, whose father Muhammad Yusuf founded Boko Haram in 2002.

The name Al-Barnawi, or variations thereof, comes from Arabic words meaning "The Man of Borno," a state in northeastern Nigeria.

"If the information turns out to be true, it will have far-reaching implications and raise many questions, including the fate of Al-Barnawi," one source told AFP.

"The big question is, where is Al-Barnawi, is he alive or is he dead? Knowing how Boko Haram works, it is unlikely that a leader will be dropped off and allowed to move freely."

Under Al-Barnawi, ISWAP broke away in mid-2016 from the faction led by Abubakar Shekau, longtime leader of Boko Haram, against its indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Shekau had already pledged allegiance to IS leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi in 2015, but IS only recognized Al-Barnawi as leader.

Al-Barnawi was only a figurehead, and the real power was taken over by his deputy Mamman Nur.

Only the mastermind behind the bombings of UN headquarters in Abuja, which killed 26 people, was assassinated in August 2018 by more radical ISWAP commanders.

Since then, Al-Barnawi "is living on the margins, taking care not to cross the path of the new leadership and earn their wrath," said a second source.

A third said that any change of leadership that has sparked online speculation among conflict makers could be considered "formality."

"Al-Barnawi had long lost relevance in the group," he said.

Dead or alive?

Only's demise followed a break in ISWAP activities in northeastern Nigeria and the kidnapping of more than 100 students from the Yobe city of Dapchi in February 2018.

The more radical lieutenants accused him of helping a ransom purported to pay for the girls' release, depriving them of the money needed for surgery.

Since last July, ISWAP attacks on military bases and soldiers have increased, which not only affects morale, but also gives jihadists the opportunity to increase vital weapons and ammunition.

One of the most recent attacks came just hours before the election in presidential elections on 23 February. Missiles were fired at the capital of the state of Borno, Maiduguri.

Weapons experts have identified the missiles seized by the Nigerian army in an attack on the Chadian city of Baga in December.

Whether Al-Barnawi has suffered the same fate as Nur is unclear, but his absence would explain the group's more aggressive positioning in recent months.

The three sources that spoke for security reasons on the condition of anonymity pointed out that his only guaranteed way out was "abdicate".

But even that would be a risk to the new leadership, with the possible emergence of another splinter group of Al-Barnawi loyalists.

Unilateral decision?

The recognition of Al-Barnawi over Shekau was widely announced in the ISIS media. So far there has been no such announcement about the new leadership.

"The silence of ISIS suggests that ISWAP made a unilateral decision to get rid of Al-Barnawi," said one source.

"It's an indication that IS does not have the kind of tight control of ISWAP, as many suspect, especially since the death of Mamman Nur."

In November, ISIS claimed to have killed 118 people in five attacks in Nigeria and Chad, making ISWAP the deadliest subsidiary.

Analysts said the increasing number and intensity of attacks showed greater capacity and mobility, and possibly broader support from jihadist groups in the Sahel region.

The silence of ISIS on the execution of Nur was a clear sign of his helplessness to stop ISWAP, the second source said.

"IS needs ISWAP more than ISWAP because of its defeat in Syria and Iraq," he said.

"They (ISIS) are now looking for a sanctuary in the Sahel," said the third. "They would not want to annoy their hosts and have to live with the violations of ISWAP and a different approach."

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