How has the Islamist extremist movement changed since its oath of fealty to ISIS' leader?
In March 2015, Muhammadu Buhari won the Nigerian presidential elections and pledged to expunge the Islamist militant group Boko Haram from the country. That same month, the insurgent movement rebranded as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) after its leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS' so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Despite a year of record brutality in 2015, Boko Haram's fortunes reversed in 2016, and it is now weaker and less far-reaching than at the time of that merger. With the anniversary of the Baya just behind us, various factors have contributed to the changes, and the role the merger has played is up for debate.
On 3 August 2016, ISIS announced that Shekau, a year after his initial pledge, had been replaced by Abu Musab al-Barnawi as wali, or leader, of ISWAP. That same day, Shekau released an audio message denouncing his usurper, and despite reaffirming his loyalty to Baghdadi, firmly oriented himself and his followers against the Barnawi bloc.
The appointment of Barnawi crystallised schisms within the group in a more explicit way than ever before, and catalysed its splintering. The Boko Haram movement has always comprised various jihadi factions, and is itself part of a wider Islamist revivalist trend in northern Nigeria, but ISIS' involvement served to intensify personal rivalries and ideological disagreements.
The antagonism between Shekau and Barnawi – the former accuses the latter of manipulating ISIS' leadership against him – sheds light on Shekau's reversion to his previously-held position as imam of Jamaatu Ahlis Sunna Liddaawati Wal-Jihad (JAS), Boko Haram's official name before its rebranding. Indeed, it was the JAS logo that subsequently appeared in Shekau's videos, rather than the ISWAP emblem.
Ideological fissures within Boko Haram are long running. Shekau's JAS faction has excessively enacted takfirism (denouncing apostates) and the practice of killing people, including Boko Haram members, without evidence. Barnawi and Mamman Nur, the leader of another splinter group, favour a transnational stance that is both anti-Western and anti-Christian, with a specific condemnation of the killing of Muslims. This divide has a significant bearing on how onlookers identify and analyse Boko Haram's ideology.
While it was hoped that ISIS would provide resources and fighters from its Libya province, some senior Boko Haram figures reportedly regretted the merger. The group's overt alignment with the Levant-based jihadis alienated it from previous ties to more developed al-Qaeda African networks, which could no longer be utilised. Only days before the replacement of Shekau, American General Thomas Waldhauser, who now heads the US Africa Command, said a contingent within Boko Haram was "not happy with the amount of buy-in ... into the [ISIS] brand."
While the symbolic importance of the merger is notable, its practical impact appears to be less significant. Barnawi's faction, despite its new position, is weak and probably in hiding from Shekau's fighters. It currently lacks the capacity for attack, and the prospect of this changing without aid from ISIS is poor. This contrasts clearly with the continued efforts of Shekau's group, who, in January, launched a high-profile attack on the University of Maiduguri.
As a consequence of the frailty of the Barnawi faction, there is little opportunity to analyse its modus operandi, to see how it differs from Shekau's. In fact, in many ways, the leadership split served to weaken those within the movement opposed to Shekau, predominantly by escalating intra-group tensions to the point of open hostility. In the time between the merger and the leadership split, a notable change in Boko Haram's ideology and overall strategy – driven specifically by affiliation to ISIS – is not apparent. This points towards the practical insignificance of the merger, and Shekau's actual authority within the movement being threatened more by existing rifts than by ISIS pressure.
ISIS' replacement of Shekau with Barnawi does not account for a number of other changes that have taken place, many predating August 2016.
The Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) began an offensive against Boko Haram in January 2015. The group swiftly lost two major towns, Bama and Gwoza, and by mid-2015, Boko Haram's territorial control was reduced to its Sambisa Forest bases. The increase in security operations has also correlated with the group's reduced reach within Nigeria. Its ability to enact coordinated attacks, and targeted assassinations, has been drastically weakened. This is evident in the decrease in successful attacks against security formations, and an increase in the second half of 2016 in assaults against internally displaced person camps.
Beyond this, the group has suffered a loss of manpower. Between the merger and today, an estimated 2,898 Boko Haram members and state representatives have been killed, with the former acknowledged to have suffered the greater losses. Indeed, in the last three months of 2016, Boko Haram suffered at least 329 deaths, according to the Global Extremism Monitor. Furthermore, over 50 per cent of these fatalities occurred during the extremists' own operations, suggesting security forces have the upper hand. Increased numbers of Boko Haram militants have also defected and surrendered in the last two years.
Since the merger, there has been a rise and fall in the group's lethality. In the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, Boko Haram was named the world's deadliest group, responsible for more civilian deaths that year than in the previous five. Its scorched-earth tactics, and minimal aptitude for governance, also served to alienate huge swathes of the population and thus had an adverse impact upon recruitment too.
However, this trend reversed last year. Between March 2015 and March 2016, Boko Haram reportedly killed 3,754 people across Nigeria, the vast majority of the 4,169 total it killed between the merger and today. This contrasts starkly with the 415 killed the following year. Indeed, research indicates that an intensifying pastoral conflict over desertification of grazing land between Fulani herdsmen and farmers across Nigeria's Middle Belt claimed more lives last year than Boko Haram militancy.
In previous years, Boko Haram had the ability to perpetrate spectacular attacks. The use of child suicide bombers in the Baga Massacre in 2015 exemplifies this. While Boko Haram violence retains aspects of depravity – UNICEF estimates Boko Haram used 2000 child soldiers in 2016 – fewer high-profile attacks and kidnappings, a lack of genuine strategic or tactical innovation, and the shifting balance of military power in the region have all contributed to this changing dynamic.
Boko Haram is certainly weaker and more divided now than when it pledged allegiance to ISIS two years ago. However, the insurgency persists, and it maintains the capacity for violence. Shekau's faction especially will continue to launch attacks as long as resources permit, with soft targets increasingly likely.
Military successes against the group touted by Nigeria's government are noteworthy, but Boko Haram is part of a cycle of Islamist uprisings in the country. If overly militaristic solutions are pursued, underlying drivers of popular discontent will continue to manifest. The fate of Boko Haram itself is far less important than Nigeria's systemic problems, which facilitate such extremist groups. Disconcertingly, this short-term approach appears to be on the verge of being bolstered. Reports have emerged of Buhari and US President Donald Trump discussing a military deal for Nigeria with no clear social plans to complement it, neither addressing the need to improve the situation of the population nor to effectively counter Boko Haram's extremist ideology.
While an overtly global jihadi lens should be avoided when analysing Boko Haram - it being overwhelmingly rooted in local dynamics - shadows of ISIS and al-Qaeda loom over developments in the Lake Chad region, and will continue to do so. In particular, a regionally dominant al-Qaeda may be able to capitalise on current discord.
Charting the changes in Boko Haram over the past two years gives insight into the shifting regional dynamics in the jihadi movement and the strategic logic of ISIS' leadership. However, Boko Haram is notable for its specific context and idiosyncratic path. This in itself can be a valuable takeaway, helping to caution against overly simplistic understandings of insurgency.