by Fulan Nasrallah
Recently Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari revealed that his administration is in contact with people purporting to be representatives of the Boko Haram. I had earlier here announced that the splinter group being led by Muhammad Daud was negotiating with the Nigerian Government although the negotiations later broke off. Now the President is saying that the administration has been contacted by some persons claiming to represent Boko Haram and seeking for the release of a supposed expert IED fabricator in exchange for the Chibok girls.
If really there are such people purporting to represent Boko Haram and seeking an IED expert maker in return for the Chibok girls, then I can confidently say that someone is trying to pull a con, albeit a long con, on the Nigerian Government another time too many.
Firstly, the Boko Haram is not and has not been a monolithic entity, no matter how much Nigeria’s military public relations officials and the Nigerian Establishment wish for it to be so. So we must first understand who the purported representatives of Boko Haram are representing Khalid Al-Barnawi or Abubakar Shekau. Going by the official Nigerian narrative, they should be representing Abubakar Shekau, as the Nigerians are insistent that Boko Haram is a monolithic decentralized terrorist organization instead of the generic name that it is for a series of groups that are not operationally linked in anyway whatsoever. However the President did not say that they are speaking on behalf of Shekau, rather there was a glaring omission of even the name Shekau from President Buhari’s admission to the press. So one begins to wonder what exactly is going on and who exactly is the Nigerian Government talking to.
The first question anyone who wishes to negotiate with any faction or group that is under the collective name Boko Haram must ask, is on whose authority are those claiming to speak for Boko Haram, speaking? No member of any of the factions can speak for his faction without the authorization of the Amir of that group. The penalty for initiating negotiations with outsiders without the permission of the Amir, right from the days of Muhammad Yusuf, has always been death. So whoever is claiming to speak for Boko Haram must speak only with the consent of the Amir. And of the three active factional leaders on ground now, only Muhammad Daud has shown any inclination to negotiate with the Nigerian State, and he does not have the Chibok girls to give back, he does not need an IED expert fabricator, nor is he currently negotiating with the Nigerians. Khalid Al-Barnawi right now has no interest or strategic benefit in pursuing negotiations with the Nigerians, and he does not have any sort of formal or informal comtact with the Nigerian government. And he definitely does not need an IED expert maker.
The case for Abubakar Shekau seeking negotiations with the Nigerians is extremely difficult to even begin to make. When his faction was still Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah, Shekau was the Amir of the group but was not an absolute ruler. Rather on issues with strategic implications such as negotiations, decisions were made with consensus by the Shuraa Council of the group. And now Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah has been fused into the Islamic State of Al-Baghdadi, which has placed oversight of activities in West Africa, to a Libyan veteran of many Al-Qaeda wars.
Shekau cannot negotiate by his own permission. He is subject to layers of authoritY now that his group has fused in to the Islamic State. Even if Shekau approaches the Nigerian government seeking negotiators, he cannot speak unless the Islamic State gives him permission to. It is characteristic of the abysmal mess that is Nigerian intelligence and policy making establishment to think of and fight with the Boko Haram based on an approach viewing this insurgency as strictly a local affair, which can be taken care of without considering factors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However wishes don’t make up reality, and the reality is that Shekau and his group are a core asset of the Islamic State, they may not be getting much money from Ar-Raqqah yet, but the connections and links are extremely strong, over a hundred fighters have already made hijrah(migration) from Nigeria to Libya to train there with the Islamic State’s provinces there, and many more are being prepared for the journey. Add to that that at least half a dozen trainers have come down from Libya and Syria to aid their brothers in arms here in developing trademark Islamic State skills, including IED and Ambush capabilities the Islamic State has refined and taken to a whole new level since the war in Syria began and the war in Iraq entered a new phase last year.
So despite Nigeria’s wish for the Shekau of old, the case is radically different. What we are seeing now is an evolved group that is becoming more and more everyday a functional arm of the Islamic State. Should Shekau be killed, the local Shuraa will select a new leader which Ar-Raqqah will recognize. Even in the old days, Shekau was not all powerful despite his dictatorial tendencies, and now he is even less so.
Thus to understand Shekau’s position on negotiating with the Nigerian State, one must understand what his bosses in the Islamic State adhere to, as he cannot contradict them or act outside their permission, even his fighters will turn on him in a heartbeat if he attempts to. Right now the Islamic State does not negotiate with enemy regimes unless it serves a strategic benefit, and when it does, such negotiations cannot be allowed to come out of the dark where they are made. If Buhari’s administration was negotiating with Islamic State West Africa, announcing it to the public is a sure nail to the coffin for any such talks, and I doubt President Buhari can be so naive to make such a blunder.
Again one must understand what a strategic benefit is for Islamic State. One IED expert is not a strategic asset either for Islamic State Central or Islamic State West Africa. Islamic State West Africa boasts literarily hundreds of IED makers and scores of experts who are proficient and highly skilled in making complex IEDs from rudimentary materials. They even had a school to train experts in Improvised Explosive Devices in Dikwa when they held that town. Right now the trainers from Libya and Syria are not coming to train them on IEDs, maybe they will help refine their techniques, but training them on IEDs is not necessary because they already have sufficient numbers of experts proficient in making complex IEDs from everyday materials. A strategic benefit for Islamic State in it’s West African theatre would be something on the scale of what is going on in Syria right now. The Syrian State gave them breathing space to expand at the detriment of the various opposition groups, and provided them with experts to run oil fields and power stations, and in return they only fight the Syrian Army when absolutely necessary, and allow power to be provided to government-controlled territory. Such a benefit is what Islamic State will negotiate for, not an IED expert.