The fracturing of Boko Haram is a story of clashing personalities, military one-upmanship and political manoeuvring. A key figure in the split was the late Mamman Nur, who first gained stature in the organisation as a top lieutenant of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and a rival of Yusuf’s successor, Shekau. A charismatic figure with some higher education – a rare trait in Boko Haram’s leadership – Nur married one of Yusuf’s widows.
He dropped out of sight for several years following Yusuf’s death in 2009. According to some reports, while Shekau was establishing himself as Boko Haram’s new leader, Nur spent some time abroad, possibly in Somalia and Sudan, forging ties to other jihadist groups, including ISIS.
Nigerian authorities labelled Nur the mastermind of the August 2011 bombing of the UN building in Abuja, although some local sources question this claim. At some point in 2014 or 2015, he joined Shekau in his stronghold in the Sambisa forest in Borno State.
It was not long before Nur and Shekau clashed. As links developed between Boko Haram and ISIS, Nur and other internal critics of Shekau’s autocratic, brutal and mercurial leadership began pushing for a formal affiliation with ISIS, which was then on a winning streak.
They were probably acting on a mix of enthusiasm for the newly-declared caliphate and a hope that they could use that affiliation to curb Shekau’s power. Shekau was reluctant, but he eventually bowed to internal pressure, pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015.
But disputes over the group’s future were not over. In late 2015, Nur reportedly left the Sambisa enclave to establish his own camp.The following June, the Boko Haram council (shura) held a reconciliation meeting in the Sambisa forest, but the effort failed. Nur challenged Shekau’s leadership, as did Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who enjoyed some notoriety because he was one of Mohammed Yusuf’s surviving sons. ISIS media were already promoting al-Barnawi to replace the more rough-edged Shekau as Boko Haram’s main public figure.
Nur and al-Barnawi sent a letter to ISIS, asking for arbitration of the leadership dispute. Before an answer arrived, Shekau’s critics fled, fearing for their lives. The response eventually came to Nur, deciding in his and al-Barnawi’s favour.
After Nur and al-Barnawi escaped the Sambisa enclave, they consolidated their own faction in Yobe state and on the banks and islands of Lake Chad in northern Borno state. They began planning their operations. Their first major independent military operation was a 3 June 2016 attack on a Nigerien base in Bosso, a town on Lake Chad close to the Nigerian border. It illustrated what would become ISWAP’s modus operandi: a raid targeting the military, capturing weapons and supplies, without civilian casualties.
Both ISIS and the new ISWAP faction heavily promoted the raid’s success on social media in an apparent attempt to establish the new faction’s credibility. Shortly thereafter, in early August 2016, the ISIS weekly al-Naba’ published an interview with al-Barnawi, mentioning that ISIS had just designated him as ISWAP’s new wali(governor).
(By some accounts, Nur had voluntarily stepped aside to ease al-Barnawi’s ascent. ) Shekau soon released audio and video recordings insisting that ISIS had been tricked and that he remained the leader of jihad in the region. But the split was complete, and with a military win to its credit and the effective endorsement by ISIS under its belt, the new faction emerged with a strong hand.
Although the militants who formed the new faction were united in disapproval of Shekau, there is reason to believe that they did not all see eye to eye about everything. Some wanted to carry on fighting but felt that Shekau was a hindrance; others felt caught between the rock of Nigeria’s stronger military response and the hard place of Shekau’s ruthless command and were looking to reach a settlement with the authorities.
Nur himself was in the latter camp, according to a religious scholar in direct contact with him and to someone involved in facilitating discussions between ISWAP and the state. This fundamental difference, muted at the time of ISWAP’s emergence, may later have contributed to Nur’s killing.