This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor to the West Point CTC Sentinel.
On August 1, Nigerian media reported that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was either shot by the Nigerian security forces or deposed by his own men in a mutiny. Shekau has been the sole face and voice of Boko Haram’s most violent faction since its first attack on a prison in Bauchi in September 2010. The reports about Shekau are still unconfirmed—and even denied by the Joint Task Force and a rival factional leader of Shekau’s—but, if the reports are true, it would be the fourth time Shekau was wounded or almost killed.
In July 2009, Shekau was the deputy of Boko Haram founder, Muhammad Yusuf, who was one of the thousand Boko Haram members killed in clashes with the Nigerian security forces that month. Shekau claimed to have been shot by the security forces during the clashes, but was released by the police after they failed to identify him as a top-level Boko Haram figure (presumably, he would have been killed if identified correctly). When Shekau reemerged in a video interview in July 2010, with a journalist who was taken to Shekau’s hideout in Maiduguri, the police said that the images were “digitally manipulated” since they had assumed Shekau was dead.
On March 30, 2011, Nigerian security forces raided a home in Damaturu, Yobe suspected of hiding Boko Haram members. When they approached the house three of the suspects, including one believed to have been Shekau, detonated explosives and escaped. Two wives of Shekau’s lieutenant, one of whom was Yusuf’s younger sister, and three children were left behind, however.
On January 20, 2012, an attack in Kano that killed more than 185 people (mostly Muslim civilians) may have led breakaway factions to inform on Shekau to the security forces. It was after that attack in Kano that Shekau’s rivals in Ansaru formally split from Boko Haram, dropping leaflets in Kano denouncing Boko Haram as “inhuman” to the Muslim community.
Not long after the attack, in April 2012, Nigerian security forces surrounded Shekau’s hideout in Kano, arrested his wife and children, and reportedly shot Shekau before he escaped from the house. Shekau left Kano and allegedly traveled to Mali disguised as a Fulani herdsman. This may be why in April 2012, dozens of Boko Haram members were reported in Gao, Mali carrying out attacks with AQIM and MUJAO, and why Shekau started speaking mainly in Arabic in his video messages after April 2012.
The recent news of Shekau’s demise does not come completely out of the blue. In late July, the security forces reportedly arrested Shekau’s in-laws and “cornered” Shekau in Gwoza in the hills of Borno State—an area that Boko Haram controlled until the security forces launched an all-out offensive in May. The US $7 million reward for Shekau’s capture may also be enticing some of Shekau’s inner circle—frustrated by setbacks and Shekau’s harsh leadership style—to abandon him.
Two of Shekau’s former spokesmen were among those who betrayed Shekau in 2012 because of his ruthlessness. After one spoke to the police about Shekau’s brutality (which was leaked to the media), Shekau retaliated by killing the spokesman’s father. They killed the other spokesman when he tried to defect from Boko Haram in Kaduna. A video clip recovered from a Boko Haram camp in the Sambisa Forest Reserve in Borno, which was raided by the military on May 16, also reportedly shows Shekau limping, providing evidence that he may have been shot.
Since President Jonathan announced the state of emergency in May, Shekau has only appeared publicly in one video, in which he ruled out any possibility of negotiations with the government (at a time when other factions seem interested in talking). He also recently announced that the only spokesman authorized to speak on Boko Haram’s behalf was Abu Zinnira.
Shekau’s elimination would mean the end of the era. He is the Boko Haram leader most closely connected to founder Muhammad Yusuf. Without Shekau, and with a weakened link to Yusuf, Boko Haram may face a legitimacy struggle. Factions of Boko Haram willing to negotiate with the government may also step into the power vacuum. However, if Shekau does survive, and reassert his leadership, it could add to the mystique of invincibility he has built since his first reported death in 2009.