There is such a thing as going too far, even for the jihadists of Boko Haram in Nigeria. They have killed at least 20,000 people in the seven years since their efforts to establish a caliphate in the north-east of the country turned violent. But the murder of Muslims has always been a point of debate. Under the maniacal Abubakar Shekau, who last year declared allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and once professed to “enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill”, the group blew up mosques as well as churches—often using children to detonate suicide bombs. But with new leadership, tactics can change.
On August 2nd IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as wali, or governor, of their West Africa Province (as Boko Haram now likes to be known). A whippersnapper in his early 20s, Mr al-Barnawi is the son of Muhammad Yusuf, the somewhat more moderate founder of Boko Haram, and formerly served as the group’s military commander. He promises to focus his wrath on Christians by “blow[ing] up every church that we are able to reach”. Mosques and Muslim markets, he says, will be left alone.
The announcement signals more than a struggle for leadership: Boko Haram has now split. Proof comes from the former leader himself. After sustaining silences long enough to prompt speculation that he was dead, Mr Shekau has released both an audio recording and a video denying that he has been replaced. “We will not follow Abu Musab,” his gang said in the film, which describes Mr al-Barnawi as an infidel. Mr Shekau now carefully calls himself the Imam of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal Jihad—the name that Boko Haram used for itself before it cosied up to IS.
IS propagandists have always disliked his violent tactics; and ideological differences have spawned splinter groups in Nigeria in the past. Two months ago an American general warned of a divide caused by the renegade leader’s refusal to listen to instructions from the Middle East, including a call to stop using children as suicide-bombers. The main dispute centres on the Islamic principle of takfir, the categorisation of others as non-believers, argues Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. Mr Shekau justifies his murder of Muslims on the basis that anyone refusing to engage in jihad is an apostate. Mr al-Barnawi’s lot are more prone to tolerate Muslims who choose not to fight.
Others have been swung by less metaphysical matters. Surrounded in the scrubby Sambisa forest, Mr Shekau’s fighters are hungry, angry and increasingly poorly armed: they complain that their leader is hoarding food and living in comfort with a string of wives.
It is possible that the split could help Nigeria’s government: the two sides may waste energy fighting each other rather that the state. More likely, though, they will try to outdo each other with a series of attacks. Mr Shekau has already promised to hit “Nigeria and the whole world”. Diplomats fret that his rival will announce himself with a show of force, perhaps on foreign workers. The north-east is awash with humanitarian agencies and Mr al-Barnawi wasted no time blaming them for “Christianising” camps.
Under pressure at home, IS lacks funds or fighters to send overseas; but Mr al-Barnawi will be more willing to follow its advice. He seems more focused on carrying out attacks through the region; perhaps using soldiers fleeing the fighting in Libya. Those close to the conflict feel decidedly gloomy. “What is coming is worse than what had come,” tweeted Fulan Nasrullah, an analyst with strong links to Boko Haram.