Who is the Leader of ISWAP?—Confusion Continues over Leadership of Islamic State in West Africa Province

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 10

On March 4, 2019, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)—the Islamic State (IS)-loyal faction of Boko Haram—announced a new leader in an audio recording. This new leader is Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi (a.k.a. Ba Idrissa) (Punch, March 5). Since then, Ba Idrissa has delivered sermons also recorded on audio and released by ISWAP media channels, but not official IS media channels, indicating that he remains loyal to IS and ISWAP leadership.

Nevertheless, IS has yet to confirm Ba Idrissa as the leader of ISWAP. The ISWAP leader replaced by Ba Idrissa, Habib Yusuf (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Barnawi), became an ISWAP “shura member”, according to the March 4 announcement. Neither IS nor ISWAP has commented on Abu Musab al-Barnawi, however, since March. Therefore, it remains unclear whether IS considers Ba Idrissa or Abu Musab al-Barnawi to be ISWAP’s leader.

Adding to the confusion, in a September 2019 ISWAP video released through IS’s Amaq media agency, an ISWAP fighter, before killing two Christian anti-ISWAP vigilantes, proclaimed Abu Musab al-Barnawi to be the leader of ISWAP (Daily Post, September 25). Moreover, Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s brother, Abba Yazeed, still works for ISWAP’s media team. Therefore, Abba Yazeed may in some way be involved in mediating the ISWAP relationship with IS—lobbying against the organization accepting Ba Idrissa as leader over his brother.

This all comes in context of the other Boko Haram faction, known as Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna li-Dawa wal-Jihad, standing by its leader, Abubakar Shekau. Since June 2019, he has increased his media output through several videos (The Guardian [Lagos], September 9). Although Shekau was originally ISWAP’s leader until he was deposed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi in 2016, he has not renounced his loyalty to IS. Nevertheless, his recent videos have included few references to IS. The group has not mentioned Shekau at all since he was deposed in 2016.

At this point, it does not appear as though Shekau is challenging either Ba Idrissa or Abu Musab al-Barnawi for the throne of ISWAP. That contest is apparently only between Ba Idrissa and Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Nevertheless, Shekau was the leader who made Boko Haram into ISWAP, from the original pledge in March 2015 to IS Caliph Abubakar al-Baghdadi, until his ouster in 2016 (Premium Times, March 8, 2015). He also led the group from the launch of jihad in 2010 until 2015. Therefore, Shekau has a leadership history and cannot be fully counted out when it comes to potentially leading ISWAP or having influence over its internal factions again.

One other factor to consider in this leadership milieu is that Abu Musab al-Barnawi is the son of Muhammed Yusuf, who led the group as a preacher from 2004 to 2009 (Legit.ng, August 26, 2016). His death at the hands of the Nigerian security forces was the final straw before Yusuf’s deputy, Shekau, took over and launched jihad with Yusuf’s followers behind him. All things being equal, Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s lineage to Yusuf might ultimately help him if there is an outright conflict over who should lead ISWAP. For the time being, however, it is safe to say Ba Idrissa is the ISWAP leader, though some fighters probably do not agree with Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s ouster.