Nigeria’s top general said Thursday that Abu Musab al-Barnawi, leader of the Islamic State insurgent group in West Africa Province (ISWAP), was dead.
ISWAP is an offshoot of the Boko Haram insurgent group that has been fighting the Nigerian armed forces for 12 years. The two militant groups then turned on each other.
The conflict between the insurgents and the Nigerian armed forces, which has also spread to neighboring Chad and Cameroon, has left an estimated 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid.
“I can confirm with authority that Abu Musab is dead,” Lucky Irabor, the chief of the defense staff, told reporters at the presidential villa in Abuja, without giving details.
The Daily Trust, a newspaper in northern Nigeria, reported that al-Barnawi died in late August, citing anonymous sources. He said different sources had given different accounts of the death of the ISWAP chief.
Al-Barnawi was the third leader of an Islamist insurgent group in West Africa to die this year, after Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau in May and Islamic State’s Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Al-Barnawi was the son of Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf, whose police murder in 2009 was one of the triggers for this group to launch their full-scale insurgency in northeast Nigeria.
After Yusuf’s death, Shekau became the leader of Boko Haram. Under his leadership, he waged a campaign of bombings, murders and mass kidnappings. In 2014, the group gained worldwide notoriety when they abducted 270 girls from their school in the town of Chibok.
In 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS, but the following year ISIS appointed al-Barnawi as its leader in West Africa.
Shekau rejected his demotion and the two went their separate ways, al-Barnawi moving his ISWAP fighters to the shores of Lake Chad, where they became the dominant insurgency.
ISWAP has entrenched itself in the region by digging wells, distributing seeds and fertilizer to farmers and providing safe pastures for pastoralists, Reuters reported in 2018. Fighters clashed with the armed forces but not with the local population.
Unlike the publicity-hungry Shekau, al-Barnawi has kept a low profile, refraining from appearing in videos or claiming responsibility for attacks.
In June of this year, al-Barnawi announced in an audio recording that his rival Shekau had died after detonating an explosive device while being pursued by ISWAP fighters following a battle.
Since Shekau’s death, the Nigerian armed forces say thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to them.
In previous years, Nigerian authorities have repeatedly mistakenly announced Shekau’s death.
France announced a month ago that its forces had killed EIGS chief al-Sahraoui. ISGS is the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sahel, a strip of land beneath the Sahara Desert that includes countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
The level of coordination between ISWAP and ISGS is unclear, but there have been increasing signs of contact between the two branches in recent years, especially as ISGS activists extend their influence in southern Niger.