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Who's In Charge Of Boko Haram? Split Emerges As 2 Men Claim Leadership

People inspect a damaged mosque following an October 2015 explosion in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Maiduguri is in Borno State, where Boko Haram was born.
Jossy Ola
People inspect a damaged mosque following an October 2015 explosion in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Maiduguri is in Borno State, where Boko Haram was born.

Who's leading Boko Haram?

Cracks are forming at the highest levels of the Nigeria-based extremist group, as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports. The Islamic State has officially named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the militant group's new leader and says he will pursue a different strategy — but the old leader, Abubakar Shekau, says he's still in charge.

Ofeibea explains the tension to our Newscast unit:

"Shekau has been head of the extremist network since 2009, and says he still leads Nigeria's militant group. Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year. ISIS has now named al-Barnawi the new Boko Haram leader, indicating a shift in strategy.

"In an Islamic State publication, al-Barnawi threatens to bomb churches and kill Christians — and also pledges to halt attacks on mosques and markets used by ordinary Muslims. Under Shekau, Boko Haram has targeted and killed more Muslims than Christians in raids by suicide bombers and gunmen."

The announcement comes after a major military campaign against Boko Haram that has rolled back the territory the group controls. Reuters reports that "Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who took office last year, has made it a priority to defeat Boko Haram, which has tried to create a state adhering to strict sharia law in the northeast during a seven-year insurgency."

There have been recent rumblings of tension between Shekau and the Islamic State leadership. According the the wire service, a senior U.S. general said in June that the group "had fractured internally, with a big group splitting away from Shekau over his failure to adhere to guidance from Islamic State."

Now, according to the BBC, Shekau has released an audio message where he "accused al-Barnawi of trying to stage a coup against him." He also accused other Boko Haram members of blocking his communication with the Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The shift "might indicate that Boko Haram, under pressure for resources, is turning to the Islamic State for more help," analysts told The New York Times.

"Has this resource pressure created more of an opening for the Islamic State to a gain stronger foothold and influence?" Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, told the Times. "That is a very, very open question. If anything, what this opens up is questions about the next stage of Boko Haram's evolution."

The BBC said the division is "a sign of weakness for the group, possibly foreshadowing an eventual collapse."

However, the BBC added that some security analysts fear the uncertain leadership "could make it more deadly and unpredictable."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.