The conventional wisdom is that the Boko Haram faction that calls itself the Islamic State in West African (ISWA) is less brutal than Abubakar Shekau’s rival faction, notorious for the Chibok school girl kidnapping and the targeting of civilians. There is some truth to this: ISWA has avoided using female and child suicide bombers and it does not seem to indiscriminately murder entire villages. Its rhetoric does not glory in murder like Shekau’s. In fact, it seems to cast itself as a Robin Hood-like group, taking food from the rich and distributing it to the poor (or so it says), standing in for an otherwise absent government.
But being “less brutal” than Shekau is a very low bar. Members of the military and others working against ISWA have been subject to kidnapping and murder. On May 20, ISWA raided an army barracks in Borno State and reportedly killed twenty soldiers. Two days later, a video was released showing the execution of nine soldiers. Before being murdered, each soldier identified himself by name, unit, and service number. The video also showed ISWA fighters swearing an oath or pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State hiding somewhere in Iraq or Syria. Reuters had not been able to independently verify the video, but it has the hallmarks of ISWA. There are also reports of ISWA murdering members the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), an informal militia that assists the Nigerian army in its fight against Boko Haram, and, in 2018, of the abduction and murder of two Muslim nurses working for the Red Cross.
Shekau’s faction, too, kills military personnel, CJTF volunteers, and government officials whenever it can, though it seems to be less active than ISWA, and where the latter seems to avoid civilian targets, Shekau does not. ISWA’s use of brutal propaganda videos recalls similar ones Shekau produced in the early days of the Boko Haram insurrection, which can be dated to 2009 or 2011. There is anecdotal evidence that such videos are successful in undermining the morale of soldiers.
According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, deaths of military personnel have matched or surpassed military deaths during height of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014 and 2015, while those of civilians and Boko Haram fighters remain much lower than their highs during that period. (In absolute terms, deaths of military personnel now appear to be comparable to those of civilians and Boko Haram members, which, historically, have been far higher.) Far from being defeated, Boko Haram has split and in some ways has become more deadly and dangerous.