The Fractious Future of the Islamic State in West Africa
Africa was supposed to be the Islamic State’s success story. Observers saw the group’s rising attacks there as proof that the continent had become the new center of global jihad. In August 2021, the United Nations even declared that “the most alarming development in recent months is [the Islamic State’s] relentless spread across the African continent.”
In reality, the Islamic State faces many problems in Africa, largely of its own making. Chief among them is factionalism. Three prominent African jihadists died over the last few months, two at the hands of other jihadists. Where the Islamic State attempted to exploit local grievances, it has now been sucked into local conflicts. To the disappointment of the Islamic State’s leaders, the group is now party to fights between different Fulani clans, and between nomads and farmers.
The deaths of three legendary jihadists — Abubakar Shekau, Abu Musab al Barnawi, and Adnan Abu Whalid al Sahrawi — reveal the limitations of the Islamic state in the region, as well as the way local conflicts feed into organizational rivalries. Internal disputes are compromising the Islamic State in West Africa, and the Central Islamic State has had little success in addressing the problems.
Just summarizing the evolution of the Islamic State in West Africa conveys how deeply factionalized it is. The organization often referred to as Boko Haram (it called itself Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna lil Da’wa Wal Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”), swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. Then, in 2016, it split into two. One faction, led by the son of the group’s founder, stayed loyal to the central leadership of the Islamic State and became known as the Islamic State’s West African Province. The other faction, led by Abubakar Shekau kept the name Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna.
In 2019, the Islamic State’s West African Province was granted control over the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, which operated in the tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. After incorporating the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, the Islamic State’s West African Province dramatically increased its activity in the border areas between Niger and Mali and its power seemed to be on the rise.
But even as it expanded and incorporated other groups, the Islamic State’s West African Province could not escape its own past divisions. Its 2016 split with Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna set the stage for two of the three most important jihadist deaths in 2021. After 2016, Shekau, the leader of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna, had concentrated his forces around the Sambisa Forest in Northeast Nigeria close to the Cameroonian border. But his Islamic State rivals were close on his heels. In May 2021, they were powerful enough to lead an attack deep into the Sambisa that killed Abubakar Shekau.
During the summer of 2021 the Islamic State’s West African Province tried to capitalize on this victory by releasing speeches in the Hausa language accusing Shekau of targeting Muslim civilians, imposing forced marriages, and supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The goal of this propaganda was to convince remaining Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna members to abandon the group, and it seemed to work. During the summer of 2021, a large number of fighters — some sources say 2,000, others as many as 6,000 — surrendered. Some did so because they did not want to join the Islamic States West African Province after it killed their old leader. Others surrendered because they were finally allowed to leave after being forced by Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna to stay in Sambisa against their own will. The rates of surrender suggested that Shekau’s “Boko Haram,” estimated to have between 1,500 and 3,000 men at its peak, was dying.
As a result, many expected Shekau’s death would enable the Islamic State’s West African Province to govern a more unified jihadist movement in Northeast Nigeria. But instead Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna was able to benefit from its own decentralization in fighting back. Since 2016, a smaller Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna group had remained in operation around Lake Chad, recruiting from the local Budumas, an ethnic group that lived largely of fishing and that had a troubled relationship with the Chadian state. Two notable leaders emerged in this group: Bakura Shalaba Modu and Bakura Doro. The Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna sub-group around Lake Chad became known as the Bakura group. Importantly, it was located far away from Sambisa, and thus well positioned to keep up the fight against the Islamic State after Shekau’s death.
In August, it appears the Bakura group struck back by killing the leader of the Islamic State’s West African Province, Abu Musab al Barnawi. When reports of Barnawi’s death started to surface, some local sources suggested that he had been killed by Nigerian forces. However, the Nigerian army, which has often claimed responsibility for killings it did not carry out and even declared jihadist leaders dead who were still alive, did not take credit for the death of Barnawi. Our local sources close to defectors from the organization pointed to an attack by the Bakura group, which had been actively targeting the Islamic State ever since Shekau’s killing in May.
The Bakura group’s success will change the dynamics of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna as a whole. Bakura Shalaba announced Shekau’s death on behalf of the whole organization, indicating an increased importance for him and the Bakura group. Indeed, several reports suggest that Bakura Shalaba was the new Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna leader. This will give the group a new center of gravity in the Lake Chad region. It will also change the ethnic composition of the Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna leadership by adding several individuals of Nigerian and Chadian background. Local sources also report that several of the former Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna commanders that swore allegiance to the Islamic State have returned to the group after Barnawi’s death. In short, Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna seems to be bouncing back, albeit in a weakened state.
Yet we cannot completely rule out another possible explanation for Barnawi’s death: infighting within the Islamic State’s West African Province. There have seen signs of such splits in the past (e.g., when the group executed its veteran commander, Mamman Nur, in 2018). In 2019, Abu Mus’ab al Barnawi’s had seemingly stepped down or had been removed from his position, to be replaced by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al Barnawi. Confusingly, this was only announced by media affiliated with the Islamic State’s West African Province, not by central Islamic State channels. Then, in 2021, Abu Musab al Barnawi announced that he had been reinstated as the group’s head. In short, regardless of which explanation of the Barnawai’s death is correct, factionalism within the West African jihadi movement is clearly taking its toll.
Making matters worse for the Islamic State’s West African Province, the group’s Mali branch was facing a host of other problems. Initially, it had successfully taken advantage of Fulani politics, and Fulani grievances towards the central state in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The group’s deep embeddedness in Fulani disputes strengthened its presence in the tri-border area by facilitating local recruitment and earning the group local allies. But it also came at a cost. To maintain the support of these local allies, the Islamic State also had to fight in their local conflicts.
Consider an example described by scholars Tor A. Benjaminsen and Boubacar Ba. The local al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, more specifically the sub-group Katiba Macina, had joined with several traditional Fulani leaders in reinstating grazing fees for certain types of grass pastures. As a result, many pastoralists from the inner Niger delta in Mali joined with the Islamic State to resist this new financial burden. As conflict over grazing fees escalated, the Fulani sub-groups that sided with the Islamic State lost many clashes. This, combined with resistance to some of the group’s other policies, had already weakened the Islamic State when its leader, Adnan Abou Walid al Sahrawi, was killed by French forces in August 2021.
So where does this leave the West African jihadi movement as whole? The deaths of Shekau, Barnawi, and Sahrawi are a setback for West Africa’s jihadists, but not a long-term defeat.
Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna has re-emerged like a phoenix from the ashes. The rise of the Bakura group cannot fully compensate for the loss of strength following Shekaus’ death, but it will enable Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna to remain powerful away from the Sambisa Forest.
The Islamic State’s West African Province is no longer on the rise. It has been checked by its own factionalism and its involvement in local conflicts, including Fulani fights in the Tri-border area, and ethnic conflicts around Lake Chad. But the Islamic State will almost certainly rebuild, particularly as locals continue to seek sources of protection in the absence of state-provided security.
As the Islamic State’s West African Province re-emerges, clashes with Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna will likely resume, along with internal conflicts. So long as local states fail to address rural security issues for local ethnic groups, these factional battles will remain the most meaningful check on the expansion of jihadism in West Africa.
Stig Jarle Hansen is a professor of international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a noted expert on Islamist movements in Africa.