First it was not really clear, who Abu Musab al-Barnawi is when the Islamic State (IS) group, appointed him as the head of Boko Haram in early August.
Although to close observers of Nigerian jihadi affairs, Barnawi’s promotion from relatively unknown spokesman to leader did not come as a surprise.
This is as many experts knew that Barnawi, born Habib Yusuf, is the 22-year-old son of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf.
His appointment by IS has deepened a rift with long-time chief Abubakar Shekau, who later released a video insisting he was still in charge and vowing to fight on.
On Tuesday, Nigeria’s military claimed that Shekau had been wounded in an air strike on Boko Haram’s forest stronghold but this has yet to be confirmed.
Yusuf senior died in police custody following a 2009 military crackdown on the sect in the North-Eastern city of Maiduguri that spurred the group to take up arms against the Nigerian government.
A tweet by Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist who specialises in covering the insurgency, confirmed that “Abu Musab al-Barnawi is the son of late Mohammed Yusuf,”
Another twitter post by Fulan Nasrullah, a conflict researcher based in Nigeria, also confirmed that “he is the first surviving son” and that Shekau had taken Barnawi under his wing when he was still a teenager, and gave him a new Arabic name meaning “the man from Borno”.
Barnawi was “like a younger brother or son to Shekau”, Nasrullah said, describing him as one of the chief’s two trusted right hand men.
Shekau is said to have instructed him in the art of war as he transformed Boko Haram from a strict Islamic sect into a jihadist movement that laid waste to swathes of territory in the North-East.
The group, since 2009, has killed an estimated 20,000 people, prompted 2.6 million to flee their homes, and kidnapped thousands of people, including hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok in the northern state of Borno.
Barnawi made his first public appearance in a January 2015 video claiming responsibility for a Boko Haram attack in the North-Eastern town of Baga, where many civilians were massacred.
According to reports, Barnawi first signs of a rift with Shekau appeared after Shekau pledged allegiance to IS in March that year and changed Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Sources close to the jihadist group and familiar with its operations claimed that Barnawi broke with Shekau and turned to Mamman Nur, a strategist who had served as Shekau’s deputy and was a close ally and confidant of Barnawi’s father.
Nur and Barnawi, it was learnt, took fighters out of Sambisa forest to areas along Lake Chad, where the savannah grasslands meet the Sahara desert. They openly criticised Shekau’s brutal leadership style, alleging he secretly killed top militant commanders who disagreed with him.
They also blamed him for the setbacks the group had suffered since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari came into office in 2015.
According to sources close to Boko Haram, Nur turned down the official leadership of ISWAP, suggesting it go instead to his protégé while he directs from behind the scenes.
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