Nigeria’s top general said on Thursday that Abu Musab al-Barnawi, leader of the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) insurgent group, was dead.
ISWAP is an offshoot of the insurgent group Boko Haram that has been fighting the Nigerian armed forces for 12 years. The two militant groups later clashed with each other.
The conflict between the insurgents and the Nigerian armed forces, which has also spread to neighboring Chad and Cameroon, has left some 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid.
“I can authoritatively confirm that Abu Musab is dead,” Lucky Irabor, the chief of defense staff, told reporters at the presidential villa in Abuja, without giving further details.
The Daily Trust, a northern Nigerian newspaper, reported that al-Barnawi had died in late August, citing unidentified sources. He said that different sources had given different accounts of how the ISWAP leader had died.
Al-Barnawi was the third leader of an Islamist insurgent group in West Africa to die this year, after Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram in May and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Al-Barnawi was the son of Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf, whose assassination at the hands of the police in 2009 was one of the triggers for that group to launch its large-scale insurrection in northeastern Nigeria.
After Yusuf’s death, Shekau became the leader of Boko Haram. Under his leadership, he carried out a campaign of mass bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. In 2014, the group gained worldwide notoriety when it kidnapped 270 girls from their school in Chibok City.
In 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but the following year, the Islamic State appointed al-Barnawi as its leader in West Africa.
Shekau rejected his demotion and the two split up, and al-Barnawi moved his ISWAP fighters to the shores of Lake Chad, where they became the dominant insurgency.
ISWAP established itself in the area by digging wells, distributing seeds and fertilizers to farmers and providing safe pastures for herders, Reuters reported in 2018. The fighters clashed with the armed forces but not with the local population.
Unlike the publicity-hungry Shekau, al-Barnawi kept a low profile, refraining from appearing in videos or claiming responsibility for the attacks.
In June 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 after a battle.
Since Shekau’s death, the Nigerian armed forces say thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to them.
In previous years, the Nigerian authorities mistakenly announced Shekau’s death several times.
France announced a month ago that its forces had killed ISGS leader al-Sahrawi. ISGS is the Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel, a strip of land beneath the Sahara desert that includes countries such as 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, particularly as ISGS militants spread their influence in southern Niger.