West Africa’s top ISIL leader is dead, says Nigerian army

Military commander claims Abu Musab al-Barnawi is dead, but the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group has yet to confirm.

Major General Lucky Irabor said he can authoritatively confirm 'that al-Barnawi is dead' [File: Paul Carsten/Reuters]

The leader of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) armed group is dead, according to a top Nigerian military commander.

Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of the founder of Nigeria’s Boko Haram armed group, was reported dead on Thursday.

“I can authoritatively confirm to you that al-Barnawi is dead. As simple as that. He is dead and remains dead,” Chief of Defence Staff General Lucky Irabor told reporters, without providing further details on how or when al-Barnawi had died.

ISWAP, a branch of ISIL (ISIS), has not confirmed al-Barnawi’s death and Nigeria’s army has claimed before to have killed commanders of armed groups only for them to reappear.

Al-Barnawi rose to prominence after splitting with Boko Haram in 2016 over differences with its commander, Abubakar Shekau, who died earlier this year during infighting between the two factions.

Nigeria’s military has issued several official statements claiming Shekau had been killed or seriously wounded in recent years, before he detonated his explosive vest during a clash with ISWAP in May.

Since Shekau’s death, al-Barnawi had consolidated ISWAP’s control in Nigeria’s northeast and the Lake Chad region but pockets of Boko Haram loyalists have been fighting back.

More than 40,000 people have died in Nigeria’s conflict and about two million more people have been displaced from their homes by the violence.

Born Habib Yusuf, al-Barnawi is believed to be the eldest son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf.

Yusuf died in police custody in 2009 and Shekau, who was his deputy at the time, was appointed as the group’s new leader.

Al-Barnawi became a spokesperson for Boko Haram but frequently clashed with Shekau. He was critical of Boko Haram’s more extreme policies, including using children as suicide bombers and the targeting of crowded markets and mosques.

In 2014, Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok shocked the world and drew widespread condemnation.

Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2015 and the group took up the name of ISWAP. But some of his followers, uncomfortable with his leadership style, splintered from Shekau’s forces.

Under the leadership of al-Barnawi, they gained ISIL’s recognition and retained the ISWAP name, while Shekau remained in charge of a faction that reassumed the armed group’s original name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or JAS.

ISWAP, whose main target is the Nigerian military, has grown in influence and power in recent years, with an estimated 3,500-5,000 fighters overshadowing the 1,500-2,000 in the Shekau-led faction, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The two groups have been embroiled in a protracted feud over several ideological differences, with hundreds of their members reported dead in earlier rounds of fighting.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies