What could have been the biggest breakthrough in the war on international jihad took Nigerian media by storm this week, as the army of Cameroon asserted that they had killed Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. However, many sources are claiming the man killed was not Shekau, but a designated impersonator, and that the true jihadist leader remains at large.
Cameroon’s military, Vice reports, published a graphic photo of a man’s dead body, who they claim to be Shekau. The military had responded to reports of a Boko Haram attack, and sources claim they happened upon Shekau and immediately pounced. The man in the photo does appear to be Shekau, though other media outlets note that a resemblance is not enough to pronounce the notorious jihadist leader dead.
The Daily Mail notes wryly that Shekau has been “killed” “dozens of times,” and that he had been incorrectly pronounced dead by the Nigerian military as recently as last Wednesday. Shekau has been known to use impersonators precisely to create an atmosphere of chaos by being more than once pronounced dead only to release a video proclaiming himself alive and well. The Mail adds that no official announcement surfaced in the killing of Shekau; rather, individual soldiers appear to have leaked the alleged photo to the media.
African media is even more torn than the West in attempting to discern whether Shekau is, in fact, dead. If so, the jihadist group, which has ravaged the northeastern Nigerian countryside for months, will have lost its focal point, and it is expected to be significantly more difficult for them to maintain the stronghold on the provinces of Borno and Adamawa they have cultivated through murder, rape, and mass abduction over the past year.
Nigeria’s Vanguard, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, has published an account titled “How Boko Haram Leader, Abubakar Shekau, was Killed,” where author Kingsley Omonobi writes that the man killed was the very Shekau known in the videos, but possibly also an “impostor” who had been playing the role of Shekau since the original Boko Haram leader was killed. The report claims that “Shekau” was ambushed in the city of Konduga after being told the city was captured by Boko Haram forces. Omonobi sites “security sources” as noting that the confirmation process is “ongoing,” but that it was highly possible “the dead body we have is the same as that character who has been posing as Shekau.” Another source confirmed the man killed was “definitely a prominent terrorist commander.”
Other African sources have positively identified the dead man in the photo as one Bashir Mohmmed. The Osun Defender, another prominent Nigerian newspaper, identified him as such citing Nigerian military sources. Adding that no Cameroonian forces were involved in the operation, the report also does not dismiss that “Abubakar Shekau,” the man made famous to the West in a video in which he vowed to enslave and sell hundreds of girls kidnapped from the village of Chibok earlier this year, was the very same Mohammed. “The late commander indeed had a great resemblance with Abubakar Shekau,” the Defender notes, “who was the original leader of the group. Bashir might have picked up the war name of the real Abubakar Shekau, who has been allegedly killed last year.”
The extremely confusing headline the Defender uses to make the point that Shekau may have been both long dead and once again killed: “It Was Not Only Boko Haram Leader Abubakar Shekau That Was Killed.”
Sahara Reporters, a New York-based outfit, appears to agree that the man killed was Bashir Mohammed. They, however, identify him as the leader of Boko Haram’s camp in Uye, though once again do not dismiss the fact that he may have been the man widely identified as Shekau. Sahara Reporters adds that an armored tank that has made several appearances in propaganda videos was also captured in Konduga.
Yet not all are so certain that Shekau– whether last year or this week– has been killed. Nigerian journalist Ahmed Salkida, who lives in Dubai, ominously tweeted this week that sources have told him Shekau is “well & alive,” and that the man in the photo is neither the real Shekau nor an imposter:
Mark my words: I have it on authority that Shekau is well & alive, the picture going round is NOT the person who torments us with his group
— Ahmad Salkida (@ContactSalkida) September 22, 2014
Salkida also appears not to believe that Shekau had a double, or that he had long been dead.
While it remains exceptionally difficult to ascertain whether Shekau– or an heir to the nom de guerre– remains alive, rumors of his death appear to have had some effect on the terrorist group. Nigeria Defense Headquarters announced this week that several Boko Haram jihadists had surrendered to authorities, hoping for some clemency after hearing that Shekau was killed. The Nigerian Tribune adds that ten other commanders within Boko Haram approached the government to surrender in response to rumors of Shekau’s death on Monday.
Boko Haram remains one of the deadliest terrorist groups participating in international jihad. Now having conquered a land mass the size of Ireland within Nigeria, the group has been committing mass murders, rapes, abductions, and acts of genocide against Christians in Nigeria, and recently announced an intent to establish a “caliphate” within Africa. President Goodluck Jonathan has not managed to rein in the terrorist group, as many live and hide within difficult to navigate forest territory in the north of the country. The defeat of Shekau– or Mohammed, or whoever this man may be– may signal a turning point in the battle against the jihadist group, as the killing was part of a larger rout in an assault that appeared to be heading for Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.