Nigeria’s military has announced the death of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the head of the West African branch of the Islamic State group.
“He is dead and will remain dead,” said General Lucky Irabor, Chief of Defence Staff.
Gen Irabor did not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Barnawi’s death, which was first reported in September.
The Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) has yet to respond to the allegations.
Since the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau earlier this year, Iswap has been regarded as Nigeria’s most powerful jihadist group.
Since then, thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to the military and, according to reports, to Iswap.
Who was Barnawi?
Little is know about Barnawi, including his age and appearance.
He was born Habib Yusuf and is thought to be the eldest son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf.
He was regarded as a moderate, rejecting Boko Haram’s more extreme policies such as the use of children as suicide bombers and the indiscriminate targeting of Muslims.
Shekau was named the group’s new leader after his father died in police custody in 2009.
Barnawi was a Boko Haram spokesperson, but he frequently clashed with Shekau and other senior leaders, and he defected to Ansaru, a Boko Haram offshoot with ties to al-Qaeda, in 2013.
Despite their differences, the two groups collaborated at times.
Shekau allied Boko Haram with the Islamic State (IS) in 2015 to help raise the group’s international profile. IS appointed Barnawi as Boko Haram’s new wali (Arabic for governor) the following year, sparking a major internal feud. Analysts believe the leadership change was precipitated by ideological clashes between Shekau and the central leadership of IS.
In August 2016, the IS newspaper al-Nabaa published an interview with Barnawi. He described the group’s battle with West African states as one against “apostates” and “crusaders” in the article. As leader, he threatened to order the killing of Christians and the bombing of churches. However, in a significant shift in the group’s strategy, he pledged to end indiscriminate attacks on mosques and markets.
The high-profile leadership change was not universally welcomed, and Shekau accused Barnawi of plotting a coup.
As a result of the infighting, supporters of the Islamic State joined the breakaway Iswap, led by Barnawi, while Shekau remained as leader of Boko Haram. Since then, the two organisations have been bitter rivals.
Shekau died in May after fleeing a battle with Iswap fighters, opting to detonate a suicide vest rather than surrender. According to Iswap, the operation in Nigeria’s Sambisa forest was ordered directly by the Islamic State’s central leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
According to the Nigerian news outlet HumAngle, Barnawi revealed Shekau’s death in an audio recording in June, saying he committed “unimaginable terrorism.”
“When the time came,” Barnawi reportedly said, “Allah sent out brave soldiers after receiving orders from the leader of the believers.”
Later that month, in a video released by Nigerian news outlets and security analysts, alleged Boko Haram militants confirmed Shekau’s death.
IS has also confirmed Shekau’s death and boasted that “thousands” of Boko Haram fighters have defected since then.
Iswap made territorial gains in northern Nigeria and the wider Chad Basin under Barnawi’s leadership in recent years. It also operates in neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Mali.
The group has taken control of several military bases, stealing weapons and supplies from regional forces. Local residents’ taxes, as well as its involvement in commercial enterprises such as fishing, have provided it with a source of income.