Colonel (rtd) Sambo Dasuki, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser
PHOTO CREDIT: VANGUARD NEWSPAPERS
May 29, 2014
Author: Jacob Zenn
On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State. Soon after the kidnapping,reports surfaced that Boko Haram may have transferred many of the girls from Nigeria to Cameroon, Chad and as far as Central African Republic’s Birao region near Sudan.
In a video released on May 5, 2014, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced he would “sell” the schoolgirls as “slaves in the market,” and on May 12 proposed that “if you want us to release your girls that we kidnapped, you must release our brethren that are held in Borno, Yobe, Kano, Kaduna, Enugu and Lagos states, as well as Abuja.”
Despite an outcry from the international community, social media and civil society, this operation was consistent with Boko Haram’s previous militant activities in the Nigeria-Cameroon-Chad-Niger border region and its founder Muhammad Yusuf’s non-recognition of colonial-era political boundaries that “cut off Niger and Chad and amalgamated [Borno] with infidels.” As Shekau, who is Yusuf’s former deputy, said in his May 5 statement, “we don’t know Cameroon or Chad…I don’t have a country. Islamiyya is what I have.” This article analyzes Boko Haram’s area of operations along the Borno-Cameroon border with a focus on kidnappings, as they have become Boko Haram’s primary method of self-sustainable funding and are a tactic first introduced in northern Nigeria by Nigerian al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants who formed the faction Ansaru in 2012.
The article reviews Boko Haram’s militant networks in Nigeria and abroad from 2003 to 2012, traces Boko Haram’s retreat to southern Borno and northern Cameroon after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in 2013, and discusses how several factions may have come together to carry out the kidnapping in Chibok in April 2014. Finally, the article suggests that “Shekau” may have become a nom de guerre representing all Boko Haram leaders, including the real Shekau, in a confederation. This confederation pools resources together from all factions for major attacks, such as the one in Chibok, but disagrees over two main issues: terms for a cease-fire with the Nigerian government and the killing of Muslim civilians.
Boko Haram’s Area of Operations
The first confrontations between Boko Haram (then called the “Nigerian Taliban”) and Nigerian security forces took place in 2003 at Boko Haram’s “Afghanistan” compound located two miles from Niger and less than 100 miles from Yusuf’s and Shekau’s hometowns in Yobe, and in 2004 near Gwoza in the Mandara Mountains along Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. After suffering losses, the Nigerian Taliban focused on preaching Salafist ideology based on the “pure teachings” of the Taliban and Usama bin Ladin and providing community services.
Yusuf and other leaders, however, also dispatched members to the Sahel, Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan to receive funds to build madrasas and mosques and acquire militant training and advice from al-Qa`ida, especially after Bin Ladin declared Nigeria “ready for liberation” in 2003. When security forces killed Boko Haram founder Yusuf and 800 followers in July 2009, more than 100 Boko Haram members fled to the border region, the Sahel, and Somalia, while Shekau, according to one member, “hid in the desert between Chad and Sudan.”These members were aided by their pre-existing connections to al-Qa`ida and its affiliates, and Boko Haram’s regional network of sub-leaders.
In July 2010, after AQIM’s leader promised “men, weapons, and ammunition” for the “mujahidin in Nigeria,” Shekau gave an interview to a blindfolded journalist in a hideout near Maiduguri, Borno State, saying that he “assumed leadership” of Boko Haram and declared to America that “jihad has begun.”
From 2010 to 2012, Shekau led Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, while militants who trained with and received funding from AQIM and al-Shabab returned to Nigeria and established cells in northwestern Nigerian states under the leadership of longtime Nigerian AQIM militant Khalid al-Barnawi. These northwestern cells, in contrast to Shekau’s faction in Borno, specialized in sophisticated bombings that bore the “hallmark of al-Qa`ida.”Boko Haram claimed all attacks until March 2012,when al-Barnawi led a cell that kidnapped and killed an Italian and a British engineer in Sokoto and claimed it under “al-Qa`ida in the Lands Beyond the Sahel.”
In January 2012, al-Barnawi had formed a new militant group called
Ansaru, which attacked Nigerian soldiers and prisons in Abuja and Kogi and carried out three kidnappings in Nigeria. Due to a dispute over funding from AQIM,ideology and Shekau’s “ruthless” leadership style, Shekau’s faction reportedly leaked information about some “traitorous” Ansaru cells to the Nigerian security forces, which contributed to Ansaru’s gradual demise and necessitated al-Barnawi to reconcile with Shekau in late 2012.
Retreat to Gwoza
After the elimination of Ansaru as a competitor, Shekau appointed new leaders to replace Ansaru’s commanders, including ones close to al-Barnawi.After the deaths or arrests of these commanders as well as Shekau’s own commanders in Yobe and Adamawa,however, Boko Haram became primarily a Borno-based movement, with 75% of its attacks in Borno during the first three months of 2013 (compared to 35% in 2012). Only Kano remained under the influence of Mamman Nur (likely using the pseudonym “Muhammed Marwan”), who accepted a second-in-command role to Shekau.
Nur’s faction attacked “un-Islamic” places such as beer halls,international targets like the UN Headquarters, organized a plot on the U.S. ambassador in Abuja, and bombed motorparks in Kano and Abuja to send “messages” to the Nigerian government and traditional Muslim leaders to release Boko Haram prisoners and to offer compensation for victims of the July 2009 clashes.
The French-led military intervention in northern Mali in January 2013 may have indirectly revitalized Boko Haram.From March to May 2013, former Ansaru, Boko Haram and other militants who fought with or learned from militants in Mali launched attacks along northeastern Borno’s border with Niger and Cameroon. They attacked a military barracks in Monguno, a prison in Bama and destroyed three towns: Baga, Marte, and Maiha.For the first time in Nigeria, militants mounted weapons on 4×4 vehicles,kidnapped government officials and their relatives to exchange for ransoms of $10,000 to $300,000, and supported a more ethnically and religiously inclusive ideology like Ansaru’s and AQIM’s—but unlike Shekau’s—that called on “Muslim youths” to fight not “in the name of any sect, clan, or country,” but for Islam.
In response to these attacks, President Jonathan ordered a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa on May 14, 2013, which coincided with the creation of the civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) to track down Boko Haram militants. Boko Haram’s foot soldiers abandoned Maiduguri and retreated from the deserts and swamplands of northeastern Borno and Lake Chad to mountainous rural areas near Gwoza in southern Borno, which is 15 miles from Chibok, where the 250 schoolgirls would later be kidnapped.Gwoza is also where “university-educated Nigerian Taliban” members carried out abductions of Christian women in 2004 until they were expelled by Nigerian troops and “vigilantes,” the latter of which were a predecessor to the civilian JTF.
Context of the Chibok Kidnapping
In 2013 and early 2014, Boko Haram’s newly formed “special kidnapping squad,” which may be part of al-Barnawi’s faction, kidnapped several foreigners in northern Cameroon and brought them to Borno, while Nur’s faction utilized Nur’s “guerrilla expertise” in the border region and contacts with Kanuri tribal elders in Cameroon to facilitate hostage negotiations. The total ransom money received and prisoners exchanged as a result of these kidnappings in Cameroon as well as the kidnappings of 12 women in Bama in May 2013—who were exchanged for the release of 90 Boko Haram members, their wives and children, and possibly ransom money—likely incentivized Boko Haram to carry out more kidnappings, such as the one in Chibok, to pressure the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments to cede to Boko Haram’s demands for the exchange of more ransom money and prisoners.
To protect its operational space in northern Cameroon, Boko Haram issued a series of warnings to Cameroon in fliers signed in Shekau’s name saying that vigilantes (keskes) would be targeted and “Cameroonians, we have not attacked you; do not attack us.” The fliers coincided with religious leaders from Borno recruiting youths among Cameroon’s Kanuri population using persuasion and financial inducements,increased arms trafficking to Boko Haram along Cameroon’s border with Chad, militants in Borno retreating to northern Cameroon and Chad after attacks, and the assassination of informants in Cameroon.
It was in the context of these kidnap-for-ransom operations and a rear base in northern Cameroon that the Chibok kidnapping occurred on April 14, 2014. Local Boko Haram unit leaders in Gwoza,such as Ibrahim Tada Ngalyike, may have carried out the kidnapping in Chibok in coordination with Boko Haram’s factional leaders, including Aminu “Tashen-Ilmi,” Nur, al-Barnawi and Shekau. Tashen-Ilmi was a member of the “Nigerian Taliban” when that group carried out similar small-scale kidnappings and could have leveraged contacts for the Chibok operation with his former co-disciples, Shekau and Nur,the latter of whom was then operating in northern Cameroon.
Similarly, Nur’s faction has possibly coordinated kidnappings with al-Barnawi in Cameroon and Borno since February 2013, and the latter’s faction may have carried out the kidnapping and cross-border transfer of some girls, “marketed” the attack with Shekau’s “fear-mongering” video on May 5 and proof-of-life video on May 12, and then transferred some girls deeper into the Sahel or Central Africa.
Factions and Faux Shekaus
Al-Barnawi may be outside of Nigeria,possibly in Niger, where some Ansaru militants retreated after the French intervention in northern Mali, but his faction operates regionally, including in Nigeria and Cameroon “Muhammed Marwan”—who is likely Mamman Nur—claimed responsibility for releasing a seven-member French family kidnapped in northern Cameroon in April 2013 for $3.14 million and says he is in control of Boko Haram’s “arms and finances.” These arms and finances are likely derived from kidnappings with al-Barnawi’s faction, weapons deals along the Chadian-Cameroonian border, and contacts between Nur’s faction and AQIM,al-Shabab and sponsors in Sudan and possibly the Persian Gulf region.
Locally rooted factional leaders, such as Ngalyike and Tashen-Ilmi, who may have been involved in the Chibok kidnapping and are likely in Borno or along the border with Cameroon, can self-finance their factions through looting villages as “spoils of war.”
As for Shekau, he was reportedly injured in northern Mali in 2012, returned to Borno after the French-led military intervention, and recovered from wounds in Amchide, Cameroon, in August 2013, where, according to some reports, he died —but Shekau emerged in a credible September 2013 video.
In August 2013, Shekau may nonetheless have been deposed in a “coup” by members of his shura, after which Shekau’s appointed
spokesman, Abu Zamira,announced that “commanders as far afield as Niger, Chad, Sudan and Cameroon” agreed to a cease-fire with the Nigerian government and a hiatus in suicide bombings.
In late 2013, “Muhammed Marwan”—likely Nur—also announced that he supported the new shura’s cease-fire and that “Shekau lost leadership” of Boko Haram, despite some followers remaining loyal to Shekau. Even despite this alleged coup in August 2013, it is likely that Nur’s faction and other militants operating in the Borno-
Cameroon border region still used Shekau’s name as a nom de guerre to claim attacks or featured imposters of Shekau in Boko Haram video statements. 
Thus far, only one self-proclaimed pro-negotiation factional leader, Abu Mohammed Abdulaziz, publicly stated in March 2013 that an “imposter” appeared in a Boko Haram video of Shekau, while in March 2014 Nigerian media also began speculating about the “changing faces of Shekau.”
Shekau’s faction, however, dismissed Abdulaziz as a “fake” in 2012 and again in March 2013 and reiterated that peace would only come when Shari`a is adopted in Nigeria. The possibility of multiple factions using Shekau as their “spokesman” or at least Shekau’s name with look-alikes in videos suggests that Shekau’s “stamp-of-approval” is relevant for showing unity or enhancing credibility.
Moreover, the stage-managed settings of Boko Haram’s videos of Shekau, including scripts and props such as a mishwak (a teeth-cleaning twig) and the same carpet and armored personnel carrier in several videos, suggest that all factions now operate under one “Boko Haram” umbrella and coordinate a sophisticated external propaganda campaign, with Ansaru either dormant or using the name “Boko Haram” to claim its operations.
Nonetheless, in addition to his “spokesman” role, Shekau likely also retains an operational role in ordering—and often claiming—his followers’ massacres of university students, such as in Yobe in September 2013, or of villages in Borno and large-scale attacks on military bases in Maiduguri.
There are likely several Boko Haram factions, but they come together in a confederation for major attacks, such as the kidnapping in Chibok, and also coordinate their public relations strategy. If their demands are met in the Chibok kidnapping, all factions could see the release of dozens of prisoners and ransom payments for all leaders in exchange for the return of some or all of the schoolgirls.
Since it is now clear that multiple leaders command Boko Haram fighters,it is likely that Boko Haram could evolve in several new ways. First, if Boko Haram maintains its safe havens in Borno and northern Cameroon,it may become a resource for violent members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Nigeria—such as Fulanis in Zamfara or Kogi—and nearby countries —such as Central African Republic—to train for attacks on rival Christian ethnic groups with whom they have land or other disputes.
Second, Boko Haram will likely expand its focus outside of northern Nigeria,especially if leaders like al-Barnawi and Nur are operating in Niger and Cameroon, potentially training Séléka militants, and acquiring new funding and weapons to revive Ansaru, but these operations may be carried out under a new group name if schisms with Shekau’s faction widen or if the Chibok negotiations expose factional fault-lines.
Third, Boko Haram’s ideology will become less Nigeria-centric and more trans-regional to attract a new Sahelo-Saharan recruiting pool, but its ideology may still resonate most deeply with Kanuris of the Nigeria-Cameroon-Chad-Niger border region.
Fourth, Boko Haram may prepare for retaliatory attacks on Western targets in southern Nigeria or abroad and take advantage of its networks in Sudan and possibly the United Kingdom if a regional or international coalition collaborates with Nigeria to launch a “total war” on Boko Haram or rescue the schoolgirls from Chibok.
Moreover, launching a series of attacks throughout Nigeria would force Nigeria’s military to “divert its attention” from Borno and weaken a renewed offensive against Boko Haram along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Finally, even if a cease-fire is reached with some factions, and Boko Haram is limited to Borno or sporadic attacks in Kano, Abuja, and Jos, it will still have the potential to cause instability in Nigeria,including army mutinies and defections, violence during the upcoming February 2015 election season, or a “war” between Christians and Muslims if it launches a renewed series of attacks on churches in the Middle Belt or extends its operations to majority Christian areas of southern Nigeria.
As such, Boko Haram can still punch above its weight in Nigeria with
attacks that have far-reaching ripple effects on political stability, as seen by the ongoing fallout from the Chibok attack.
Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation and a consultant on countering violent extremism,international law of freedom of association, and socio-cultural analysis for geospatial visualization. Mr. Zenn speaks
French and Arabic and carried out field research in the northern Nigeria-Cameroon-Chad-Niger border region three times between 2012 and 2014. He is currently researching Boko Haram’s connections to Central Asian militants in a Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) monograph. Mr. Zenn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a certificate in international studies from the Johns Hopkins-SAIS campus in Nanjing, China.