Widespread rumors erupted this weekend that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau died in an Islamic State attack on his group. As of Monday, the Nigerian government has not confirmed the rumors and experts are analyzing audio, allegedly of Shekau, emerging shortly after his alleged demise.
Terrorism experts believe that Shekau took over Boko Haram in 2009 and has pioneered some of the terrorist group’s most successful tactics, including mass kidnappings of girls and young women and the use of children as suicide bombers. Shekau has “died” on several occasions, declared dead in military ambushes and government operations multiple times only to resurface on videos mocking the Nigerian government.
Shekau reportedly pledged allegiance to Islamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015 and renamed the group, whose original title roughly translates to “Western Education is Forbidden” in Hausa, the “Islamic State West Africa Province” (ISWAP). Since then, the government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly claimed that his government has defeated Boko Haram – only to have the group stage mass kidnappings or the razing of entire villages – then began claiming that Boko Haram no longer functionally existed due to the growing influence in the group of ISIS members no longer aligned with Shekau.
“The position of the Nigerian government is that the Boko Haram terrorism has been degraded and defeated. The real Boko Haram we know is defeated,” Buhari spokesman Garba Shehu said in 2019. “What we have now is a mixture of remnants of the Boko Haram, fugitive criminals … [and jihadis in Northern Africa’s Maghreb reigon] together with West African terrorists bonding together.”
Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper, citing “sources,” reported on Saturday that tensions between Shekau’s Boko Haram and factions identifying as ISWAP are authentic and resulted in an invasion of the Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram’s traditional stronghold, last week.
“Although, military authorities who are directly involved in the fight against terrorism are yet to issue official statement on the rumoured death of the terrorist leader in Nigeria,” Vanguard reported, “sources said, hundreds of ISWAP fighters invaded Sambisa with heavy gun trucks during the week hunting for Shekau who was the factional leader of Boko Haram.”
The ISIS terrorists were allegedly between the ages of 12 and 30, the newspaper detailed, many of them the children of jihadists raised in the group, the product of the systematic rape of mass kidnapping victims.
The fighting between ISWAP and Boko Haram, allegedly distinct groups now, “lasted several days,” the Nigerian newspaper alleged and resulted in Shekau detonating a bomb attached to his person during a duel to avoid being captured by rival terrorists.
On Sunday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that an audio message, allegedly of Shekau, had begun circulating in northern Nigeria. In it, the voice allegedly of Shekau claims that fellow jihadists had betrayed him and his loyalists. The audio appears to confirm some form of violent clash between Boko Haram and presumed allies.
“Some people within us who are our trusted allies … They deceived us. We engaged them with the support of people within us. They killed and wounded several of our people,” the voice claimed, according to Anadolu. “They connived with our trusted people and agreed to fight together. We engaged them in a war of connivance with the people within us. We saw hell during the war with them and no one can overcome it.”
The Nigerian government has claimed that Shekau has died at least three times in recent member; the Daily Mail reported that he had “died” “dozens of times” in 2014. At that time, during the tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigerian media began circulating a photo of a corpse allegedly of Shekau. The military later confirmed the dead man was a Shekau impersonator after the Boko Haram leader resurfaced in a video. Under Buhari, the Nigerian military claimed to have killed Shekau in 2016 and again in May 2017, but Shekau responded to the declarations by appearing in videos confirming that he was alive shortly after both alleged killings.
Unlike past reports of Shekau’s death, Islamic State terrorists, not the Nigerian military, are the alleged parties responsible for his death, and the military has neither confirmed his death nor claimed any involvement in the event that allegedly killed him. A Nigerian Army spokesman allegedly said only that the military was “studying” the reports claiming Shekau died, according to Anadolu.
Voice of America cited a spokesman for the White House National Security Council similarly offering no confirmation or denial of the reports.
“The United States has not yet been able to independently verify these reports and continues to monitor the situation,” the spokesperson said.
An entity describing itself as ISWAP issued a statement to Nigerian outlets on Saturday claiming to have appointed a new leader of Boko Haram, and thus uniting the allegedly distinct factions.
“[Abu-Musad] Albarnawy immediately takes over all territories that were under Shekau. The immediate replacement of Shekau was a major revenge against the former Boko Haram leader that exhibited ‘highhandedness and ruthlessness’ against humanity in the Northeast,” the ISWAP statement read, according to Nigeria’s the Guardian.