WARRI, Nigeria — The so-called Islamic State has different strategies in different parts of the world, but in Africa and in Europe, certainly, its core objective is becoming clear: to kill Christians. Its long-term goal: to provoke a new Crusade, reviving the holy wars of many hundreds of years ago in the belief that this time around Islam will win.
In practical terms, this focus on a single pervasive, easily targeted enemy is useful to a “caliphate” under pressure that is trying to keep its troops in line.
The way ISIS has handled its Nigerian disciples in the terror organization called Boko Haram, best known for kidnapping girls and using women and children as suicide bombers, is a perfect case in point.
Earlier this month, a man named Abu Musab al-Barnawi announced that he had taken over the infamous Boko Haram organization. And his first message as Boko Haram’s leader was as clear as it was concise—on his watch, the group’s main focus will be killing Christians.
According to an interview published this month by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS), al-Barnawi threatened to bomb churches and kill Christians, but will no longer attack places used by Muslims.
The man described as the new wali, or governor, of ISIS West Africa Province (as Boko Haram wants to be known), said there is a plot by the Western nations to Christianize the region and also claimed that charity organizations are being used to achieve this, according to an interview published in the Islamic State newspaper al-Nabaa and translated by SITE Intelligence Group.
"They strongly seek to Christianize the society,” he said of these charities. “They exploit the condition of those who are displaced under the raging war, providing them with food and shelter and then Christianizing their children.”
The man who now runs Boko Haram said the group will deal with Christians by “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the cross.”
Not only were al-Barnawi’s intentions clear, his agenda for Boko Haram also appears to be a clear script written by ISIS, to whom he answers. The new leader will be expected to deliver results that his predecessor, Abubakar Shekau, failed to achieve.
When Boko Haram under Shekau’s leadership pledged allegiance to ISIS last year, it looked like the group would adopt ISIS modus operandi and embrace its ultimate goal to lead Muslims toward an apocalyptic battle against “infidels,” and eventually create a unified, Muslim territory where it would enforce its extremist beliefs. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.
While ISIS, with a precise goal of gaining and inspiring its followers, developed strategies of achieving its aim, including citing the Quran in shaping its vision, and referencing the words of the Prophet in its statements, most of which it released on its well packaged online magazine, Dabiq, Boko Haram on the other hand showed it was a loosely organized group with militants lacking in strategy and erratic in behavior as it began to focus its attacks on the same Muslims it needed to inspire and recruit.
In recent months, rumors began to fly that Shekau had run into problems with the leadership of ISIS for his failure to obey its guidance.
In June, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the nominee to lead the U.S. military's Africa Command, told a congressional hearing that Boko Haram have fractured internally, with a big group splitting away from Shekau over his failure to heed to instructions from ISIS, including ignoring calls to stop using children as suicide bombers.
"He's been told by ISIL to stop doing that,” Waldhauser said, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for Islamic State at his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But he has not done so. And that's one of the reasons why this splinter group has broken off.”
"What concerns me is the breakoff group of Boko Haram who wants to be more ISIL-like,” said Waldhauser, “and consequently buy into the ISIL-brand of attacking Western interests.”
Boko Haram has lost ground to a more determined Nigerian military in recent months, and without territory it loses some of its draw for new recruits, but al-Barnawi’s anti-Christian focus is tried and tested by his mentors in the “caliphate,” who want to keep the Nigerian conflict turned up to a full boil.
Al-Barnawi’s anti-Christian rhetoric is already the focus of ISIS in Europe. On the day he was announced as Boko Haram’s new leader, ISIS used the latest issue of Dabiq to paint Christianity as a “false” religion and Christians as “cross worshippers.” It encouraged Muslims to attack churches in a ways similar to the atrocity in France last month, where two men entered a Catholic church in small town Normandy, slit the throat of an 86-year-old priest, and gravely wounded a nun.
ISIS has proven in the past that it is capable of following up on its warnings, and determined to do so, is why the threats by the leader of its so-called West Africa province must be taken seriously.
Before the Normandy attack, ISIS, in the fifth issue of its slick French-language magazine, Dar al-Islam, which came out last summer, listed French churches as targets in a campaign "to create fear in their hearts," according to a CNN report last month.
The group’s planned attack on a church in Villejuif in the Paris area in April 2015 was thwarted by French police after the man who was supposed to carry out the operation accidentally shot himself in the leg. But after failing in Villejuif, it returned to carry out the murder in Normandy, showing it can hit where it said it’s going to hit—at a church. It is threatening to do the same in cities like London and Washington, D.C., and now in West Africa. With the Normandy attack, it was trying to prove to the world that it can do what it says it will do.
The Christians of the Middle East, though a minority, and a dwindling one in many places, are targeted as well. In June, an Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the murder of a priest in the Sinai Peninsula where it operates, describing him as a “disbelieving combatant,” in a way ISIS often describes non-Muslims.
ISIS has set an ambitious goal of fighting until “disbelievers” accept its options of conversion, submission by paying the infidel tax (jizyah), or death, and its removal of Shekau as Boko Haram leader is a clear indication that it wants its jihad to expand until “it covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth,” as it puts it in the fifth issue of Dabiq. In its home base straddling parts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has persecuted all supposed infidels, including Yazidis—condemned as pagans and murdered or sold into slavery—as well as Christians.
This new global emphasis on “cross worshippers” is a return to the group’s jihadist roots, harking back to the 1998 declaration by Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and others that they would wage war on “Crusaders and Jews” around the world. A return to fundamentals is often the strategy of an organization trying to regain focus and rationalize its structure.
“It wouldn’t be easy for al-Barnawi to operate in the state at which Boko Haram is at the moment,” said Ushie Michael, a prominent Nigerian security analyst who has been following the activities of the group right from inception. “Shekau still has his faction, and there is most likely going to be a clash between both groups.”
As ISIS seeks to reposition Boko Haram, Shekau disagrees with the new arrangement, and as a recording purportedly from him suggests, the former leader—who described al-Barnawi as “an infidel” preaching “false creeds”—sees the announcement of a new head of the sect as a coup.
“At the beginning of these exchanges [with ISIS], I was deceived. I was made to articulate my beliefs in writing, but this was rejected,” Shekau said.
As things stand, Shekau has lost control of what remains of Boko Haram, and whether or not he agrees with this new development, it doesn’t change what ISIS intends to do. To achieve its ultimate ambition of securing a global caliphate through a global war, it must keep its recruits—whether in the field in the Middle East, or fighting as part of subsidiaries in Africa, or as “lone wolves” in Europe—focused on the enemy that’s at hand: Christians.