A Boko Haram faction led by the son of the group’s founder is trying to win over civilians by shunning the indiscriminate violence of its longtime figurehead that has alienated locals.
Eyewitnesses to a spate of recent raids attributed to Islamist fighters loyal to Abu Musab Al-Barnawi in northeast Nigeria have said they repeatedly told villagers they would not be harmed.
Others say mass violence has been reduced in parts of the northern Borno state around Lake Chad now controlled by Barnawi and Mamman Nur, his right-hand man who is seen by some as the real leader.
But experts tracking the eight-year conflict said it might be a calculated tactic purely to win support.
Herdsman Jabbi Sambo said jihadists loyal to the elusive Boko Haram chief, Abubakar Shekau, repeatedly stole or killed their prized cattle, abducted women and children, and razed their homes.
“Things changed dramatically” when Nur took over control of the Lake Chad area, Sambo, from the town of Shuwaram, he told AFP.
“The raids and the killings stopped and we were free to move with our herds for grazing.”
Nur, the alleged mastermind behind the 2011 bombing of a UN building in Abuja that killed 24, told them in person that he “wanted to build trust and confidence between his group and people in the area”.
The only proviso was that they did not cooperate with the military, he added.
Balaraba Abdullahi was abducted from Baga in January 2014 and was held for three years by the group, whose insurgency has killed at least 20,000 people and made more than 2.6 million homeless.
“A little offence would attract death. All of these happened under Shekau but things changed under Mamman Nur,” said the 20-year-old, who was eventually released.
Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in March 2015, but in August last year it announced that Barnawi was in charge of its “West Africa province”.
Barnawi, whose father Mohammed Yusuf founded Boko Haram in 2002 with Shekau as his deputy, has criticised the latter’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians and fellow Muslims.
Instead of suicide bombings causing mass casualties, his faction has vowed to concentrate on fighting “Christian crusaders” in Africa, as well as the government and military.
Yan St-Pierre, from the Modern Security Consulting Group in Berlin, said the Barnawi faction was “keeping a low profile and is looking for support in local communities”.
“It’s patiently developing networks around Lake Chad to set itself up for the long term, a bit like Daesh is doing in Iraq and Syria,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Omar Mahmood, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said Barnawi’s men were seeking to gain ground and build up their capacity to attack.
The idea was to create a “sustainable safe haven” after being forced out of captured towns and villages by a regional military counter-offensive that began in early 2015.
Despite the reassurances of Barnawi fighters, recent events demonstrate the group is still willing to kill civilians.
Last week, three men from Kalari Abdiye in the Konduga area were killed after being accused of providing information to the military. A fourth was mutilated.
Abubakar Gamandi, the head of the Borno fishermen’s union, said his members had warned people that the apparently conciliatory approach was only “skin-deep”.
“They may not be as vicious as Shekau and his men but the Mamman Nur faction cannot be trusted. They are only projecting a humane face because it suits their agenda,” he said.
“If they have to kill to achieve their goal they will be as bad as Shekau or worse. It is all about interest.”
Gamandi said Barnawi’s men slaughtered a cattle driver’s 100 cows “as punishment for selling herds to ‘infidels'” and whipped a fisherman who wanted to sell his catch back home rather than to the group.
Food is looted from civilians who rely on hand-outs from aid agencies, he said.
In effect they were “killing slowly through hunger”, Gamandi said.
Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, from the French Institute of Geopolitics in Paris, said the tactics showed how both factions of Boko Haram were still locally focused.
There appeared to be no financing or even foreign fighters from IS, he said, adding: “The only concrete link… is they have helped Boko Haram’s publicity by relaying it around the world.”