The Lessons of Abu Zinnira: A Spokesman in Boko Haram’s Kidnappings and Factional Feuds

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 4

In February 2018, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) carried out a brazen kidnapping of 111 girls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria. After capturing them, the militants reportedly took the girls hundreds of kilometers away, to the base of the ISWAP leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, near Lake Chad in Borno State (Vanguard, March 21). Al-Barnawi then ordered the head of the ISWAP faction that carried out the kidnapping, Abu Bashir, to return the girls to Dapchi for no ransom or exchange, because ISWAP does not kidnap Muslim girls. The group continued to hold hostage the one Christian girl in the group (Vanguard, March 26). ISWAP’s turnaround may have surprised some. However, recalling the story of the death of Abu Zinnira, one of the holders of the more than 200 girls Abubakr Shekau-led Boko Haram took hostage in Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014, such an exchange may not be so surprising. Shekau was the leader of ISWAP but split from the group and revived Boko Haram in August 2016 after it had been extinct since March 2015.

Abu Zinnira was a longtime member of Boko Haram and was on its media team even before the announcement of jihad in 2009. However, in March 2013, Shekau, for the first time publicly, named Abu Zinnira as spokesman of the group. Shekau made the announcement in a split-screen video showing seven kidnapped French nationals (including four children), and Shekau said that only words from himself or Abu Zinnira should be trusted (Premiumtimes), March 19, 2013). Also in March, Abu Zinnira issued a statement rejecting the Nigerian government’s claims it had thwarted a Boko Haram raid on the Monguno barracks, instead claiming the raid was a success (Channelstv, March 11, 2013). Abu Zinnira surfaced again that June, when he threatened an anti-Boko Haram civilian vigilante force (Dailypost, June 19, 2013). His final appearance as spokesman was on September 9, 2014, when, in a phone call with journalists in Maiduguri, Abu Zinnira said that Boko Haram was in control of Bama during the period Boko Haram was still conquering territory (Premiumtimes, September 9, 2014). However, Abu Zinnira resurfaced when he released—but did not appear in—a Boko Haram video released on YouTube on February 9, 2015, which anticipated Shekau’s impending pledge of loyalty to Islamic State (IS) in March 2015 (YouTube, February 9, 2015 [since removed]).

So, how is Abu Zinnira connected to the Chibok and Dapchi kidnappings? It is believed that he played a role in urging Shekau to exchange the Chibok girls for months before Shekau finally authorized exchanges in October 2016 and May 2017, when he released more than 100 of the girls for money and imprisoned Boko Haram members (Premiumtimes, May 17, 2017). Then, however, Shekau ordered Abu Zinnira killed for subordination and collaboration with ISWAP (Vanguard, February 24, 2017). ISWAP, as the Dapchi kidnapping showed, does not kidnap Muslim girls. Abu Zinnira, for all of the killing he likely meted out as a Boko Haram member, was therefore also a victim of Boko Haram-ISWAP factional dynamics and is a case in point of the differences between Boko Haram and ISWAP and those members caught between the two factions.

If there are more “Abu Zinniras” in the future, it will mean, at the very least, that even if the insurgency continues, one of the most egregious types of attacks—the kidnapping, or “enslavement,” of girls—may abate. The growing strength of ISWAP suggests that there may be more Abu Zinnira-type militants out there, despite the “real” Abu Zinnira’s death at the hands of Shekau.