Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and a fellow on African and Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation.
In June 2018, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, the leader of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), released a history of his jihadist movement. In 2017, the Ansaru leader, under the pseudonym Abu Usama al-Ansari, released his own history, while Abubakar Shekau released a book in the name of the Boko Haram faction he currently leads. Aymenn J. al-Tamimi has translated al-Barnawi’s and Shekau’s books, providing in English the perspectives of each of the authors.
Shekau’s book sheds light on his theology and worldview and his relationship with the Islamic State. The book is called “The Message on the Meaning of Islam, Its Contrary, Taghut, and Western Schools.” Among other things, it reiterates Boko Haram’s belief that schools teaching Western-style education contradict Islam.
Notable is Shekau’s apparent belief in the “multiplicity of imams”. This refers to a dispute among Muslim scholars about whether more than one leader can govern a Caliphate, as existed with Mamluk rule over the government and army, and Abbasid rule over theology in Egypt before the Ottoman conquest. This belief may explain why Shekau considered himself the imam presiding over Boko Haram–held territories in northeastern Nigeria, which he referred to as an Islamic state (specifically dawlat al-Islam in Arabic and daular musulunci in Hausa) or, in one instance, “a state within the Islamic States” (specifically dawla min dawal al-Islam). However, Shekau also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its Caliph, Abubakar al-Baghdadi, in 2015, and has yet to formally renounce that pledge, despite falling out of favor with the group's leader.
As a new report released by the South Africa-based Center for the Study of Contemporary Islam details, the Islamic State removed Shekau from his leadership role in August 2016 after rival leaders raised their concerns to al-Baghdadi about him. AQIM had done the same in 2011. In letters between AQIM and Boko Haram that Aymenn J. al-Tamimi has also translated, the Boko Haram members who defected from Shekau to form Ansaru in 2012 submitted a litany of grievances to AQIM about Shekau, among them that Shekau forced fighters to refer to him as “the greatest imam.” AQIM had considered Shekau to be its representative, but when AQIM learned of Shekau’s “signs of deviation and extremism” it dropped him.
There is no doubt Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi loathes Shekau, but Boko Haram factions have a history of splitting and reintegrating. Some ISWA members are now taking a more extreme turn while also engaging in a military offensive with seemingly improved tactics and new uniforms. Shekau could conceivably make another run at leading ISWA or some faction of it or try to merge Boko Haram with some of ISWA’s more extreme members. They apparently think Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi and the Islamic State members who advised him are “suspect” and too lenient.
Judging from the translations of Shekau’s and al-Barnawi’s books, it appears that both factions are set on continued violent opposition, both to the Nigerian government and to each other. One wonders whether the Nigerian government might nonetheless be able to play these factions against each other to weaken them both.