Takfir: The Ideological Conflict That Divided Boko Haram

Shekau had insisted that whoever did not pay allegiance to him or continued to live under the government of Nigeria was an unbeliever who could be attacked and killed. Over time, his extreme stand on excommunication led to numerous civilian deaths and discord among the jihadi commanders.

The death of former Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who blew himself up after an encounter with rival insurgents on Wednesday, May 19, was confirmed by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) on June 5. 

ISWAP terrorists used their fighters positioned in the Timbuktu Triangle to track down Shekau’s enclave. In the process, his fighters were slain and the invading force engaged in a protracted gunfight with Shekau’s bodyguards. 

While ISWAP fighters were the direct perpetrators, Shekau blamed “his own people” for orchestrating the attack in an audio broadcast he made shortly before his death. He thought that some of his followers had leaked information, leading to his capture in Sambisa Forest. 

“We can see a war has occurred, members have been murdered and many have been injured in this combat involving insiders,” he stated in his final message, which he asked to “be distributed even by jinns to where we want it to go.” 

Shekau went on to describe what caused the division and conflicts, claiming that it was a matter of creed. He said that ISWAP accused him of undermining the Islamic State (IS) but that it was others in their midst who spread doubt and stood in the way of communications between him and the IS caliph regarding the matter. 

From what designation was appropriate, the treatment of Nigerian Muslims, to the abduction of slaves, the Boko Haram leader detailed the conflicts and disagreements that developed between him and ISWAP leaders. These ideological differences eventually caused the once unified group to split into factions. 

According to Shekau, the crisis was caused by a doctrinal disagreement that began around 2012 and wreaked havoc within Boko Haram, leading to defections, assassinations, and a fierce power struggle for control of the group’s seized areas. 

When Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi was named the “Wali” (governor) of West Africa in 2016, the divide was first revealed in an interview with the ISIS weekly publication, Al-Naba. The split became more apparent after the refusal of Shekau to change his leadership style and modify his ideologies. 

The leaders of ISWAP, notably Abu Fatima and Mamman Nur, departed from the Shura Council of the Boko Haram and defected firstly to Ansaru, an Alqaeda affiliated group, before later forming ISWAP after paying allegiance to ISIS. 

The doctrinal war between the two competing factions, JAS and ISWAP, centred on a concept known as takfirism. Common among the core teachings of Salafi Jihadism, it is the subject of not recognising Muslims who do not subscribe to the jihadis’ ideologies.

Takfirism is considered a crucial but sensitive issue. Declaring someone a kafir (disbeliever, infidel) or accusing people of kufr (disbelief) provides justification for spilling their blood, confiscating their properties, and enslaving them. Asides its illegality in secular countries, an application of the doctrine could lead to an endless chain of excommunication that would result in mayhem. 

Even before the rise of the Islamic State, there were different schools of Takfir within the jihadi-salafi movement. Shekau and his supporters followed the extreme school of Diya al-din al-Qudsi, who wrote a book that postulated a radical version of takfirism. Shekau is noted to have quoted al-Qudsi verbatim in one of his sermons.

Many scholars have long recognised the threat of takfirism within the Muslim community in Nigeria, particularly in the North-East. This has led to intellectual engagements, most notably between Sherif Ibrahim Saleh Al-Hussaini, a Sufi scholar and the current head of the Supreme Council for Fatwa and Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, and other Muslim scholars, leading him to publish two volumes of literature against Takfirism.

There are differences in opinion within the Salafi-Jihadi space on how takfir should be applied among Muslims. This has led to the emergence of separate schools of thought and sub-factions not only among the Jihadists in Nigeria but also in many other countries. 

Shekau had insisted that whoever did not pay allegiance to him or continued to live under the government of Nigeria was an unbeliever who could be attacked and killed. He believed such a person was a disbeliever by virtue of practising democracy or being held to a secular constitution. 

Both JAS and ISWAP do not recognise the Nigerian state’s sovereignty. They also disregard the country’s constitution and the institutions set up by the law. Their goal is to build an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, as well as sections of adjacent West Africa, where Sharia (Islamic law) will be fully imposed. 

Another contentious issue between the two groups is whether residents of Nigeria, referred to as “Darul Kufr” (the abode of unbelief), should be declared unbelievers for living under a secular constitution without the benefit of the excuse of ignorance (udhr bil jahl). 

The situation prompted them to ask other questions, including the verdict on those who excuse Nigerians for their ignorance (takfiril adhir). The questions are intimately related to 18th-century theologian, Muhammad bin Abdulwahab’s notion of “nawaqidhul Islam” (nullifiers of Islam), which Salafists usually agree on but about whose application they disagree.

For example, the ISWAP faction rejects the excommunication of someone who commits acts of disbelief under ignorance. People living in Nigeria, according to Abu Mus’ab, cannot be altogether condemned unless they have full knowledge that not migrating to their jurisdiction makes them guilty of Kufr or supporting Kufr. 

Shekau, on the other hand, considered anyone who did not aggressively exhibit devotion to his group to have lost their status as Muslim. Ditto for people who live under government authority and do not revolt. 

Those who flee areas under his control for government-controlled areas face the same fate. In essence, it is up to each individual to take proactive steps to ensure their Muslim status. This suggests that Shekau did not regard a major portion of the Lake Chad region’s people as legitimate Muslims, and hence considered them appropriate targets for his attacks. 

Over time, this philosophy resulted in increased civilian fatalities and rising dissatisfaction both within the group and between it and others. 

ISWAP’s Mamman Nur was adamantly opposed to the brutal strategy, arguing that focus on attacks should be on “actual infidels,” and that attacks on mosques should be replaced with attacks on non-Islamic worship centres and military bases.

In a letter they sent to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) around 2012, the ISWAP leaders (then part of Ansaru) accused Shekau of extremism through labelling other Muslims living in Nigeria as disbelievers. 

“Among the most serious (deviations of Shekau) is the extremism in labelling (Muslims) unbelievers (takfīr), for Abu Muhammad al-Shekawi uses takfīr for all who participate in the elections (specific takfīr) disregarding the principles and rules of takfīr,” they wrote.

“He holds to those who believe that there is no excuse because of ignorance with regard to the greatest shirk, and relies upon the words and writings such as Shaykh ‘Ali al-Khudayr’s al-Mutammima, in spite of the fact that there are errors in it and clear contradictions with regard to other religious leaders. Likewise, Diya’ al-Din al-Qudsi’s book, La ‘udhr bi-l-jahl fi al-shirk al-akbar, which is famous for extremism, and mistreatment of religious leaders together with plagiarism, which has caused him to be in disrepute.”

In the Al-Naba interview, Barnawi also stated that Islam forbids harming ordinary people as long as they do not actively oppose jihad. 

Unlike Shekau, the Barnawi group maintained that having or supporting local vigilantes was no justification for arbitrary attacks against civilians in the North, stating that attacks on ordinary people going about their daily business in mosques and markets would stop. 

Both groups similarly disagreed about who qualified as a civilian and who didn’t, a debate that has featured in other jihadist splits worldwide. However, it was the slaughter of Muslim civilians that sparked the schism, with ISIS siding with Barnawi and designating him to lead ISWAP. 

Shekau refused to accept his demotion. But he also did not abandon his devotion to ISIS and continued operating under his previous banner, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). 

Since 2017, there have been multiple skirmishes between the gangs, with a number of fighters losing their lives, culminating in the death of Shekau. According to sources, there were attempts at reconciliation between the two parties, but they all failed.

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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