Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, may have a new leader, according to the jihadist group’s online weekly Al-Naba.
“In his first interview with Al-Naba magazine since his appointment as governor of west Africa, Sheikh Abu Musab al-Barnawi talks about the history of jihad in this region,” read the 41st edition of the magazine, published on Tuesday.
In the interview, Barnawi makes no clear reference to the movement’s leader Abubakar Shekau, except for a mention of Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS in March 2015.
Since the pledge, Barnawi has appeared in several videos distributed by Boko Haram, claiming responsibility for successive attacks, earning him the reputation of group spokesman, experts say.
Speculation over the fate — and alleged disappearance — of Shekau has been rife in recent months.
He last appeared in a video posted on YouTube in March, looking weak, and saying: “For me, the end has come.”
Sources close to Boko Haram say Shekau was injured in the abdomen.
With no proof of life since then, they say he has either been incapacitated and become unable to lead, or he has died.
“If (Shekau) is still alive then ISIS chose to replace him,” Kyle Shideler of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy told AFP, using another acronym for IS.
“This (Barnawi) is their preferred choice,” Shideler added.
– Was Shekau sacked? –
Romain Caillet, a French expert on jihadist movements, agreed.
“There is no indication in the interview that Abubakar Shekau has been killed, which means he was likely sacked,” Caillet wrote on Twitter.
A Nigerian security analyst said he believed Shekau is alive, but that IS may be seeking to clean up Boko Haram’s reputation among jihadists, by getting rid of a leader seen as disorganised and unreliable.
Barnawi may have taken over from Shekau, said Yan St-Pierre, a specialist on jihadist groups who works for the Berlin-based Modern Security Consulting Group (Mosecon).
Under Shekau’s leadership, “Boko Haram has lost its prestige and become difficult to control. Today, Boko Haram is divided into several little groups.”
Shekau became Boko Haram leader after the Nigerian security forces killed the group’s founding chief Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, sparking an insurgency that has left 20,000 people dead and forced 2.6 million people to flee their homes.