With his gruesome videos and fierce rhetoric, Abubakar Shekau is the public face of Boko Haram, the Islamist insurrection against the Nigerian secular state centered in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. However, there is little hard intelligence on the internal dynamics of Boko Haram’s leadership.
The Nigerian security forces claimed to have killed Shekau in 2009, at the same time they extra-judicially executed the movement’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. No outsider has seen Shekau since that time. Subsequently, there have been regular reports that the security services have killed him. Each time, however, ‘Shekau’ has issued a video in order to prove he is still alive. However, the ‘Shekau’ figure in some of the videos looks different from others. Accordingly, there are numerous conspiracy theories involving Skekau’s alleged doubles.
On September 21, the Cameroonian authorities claimed that they had killed Shekau in a shoot-out, and they released a photograph of a corpse with some resemblance to Shekau. However, Sahara Reporters cites Nigerian intelligence as saying that the dead man is Mohammed Bashir, an important Boko Haram lieutenant, and that the Nigerians, not the Cameroonians, deserved the credit.
Who knows whether Shekau is alive or dead? The question may not matter much. As Boko Haram’s resurrection after the killing of its genuinely charismatic leader Mohammed Yusuf shows, the movement is remarkably resilient, and not dependent on a single leader. Further, if Shekau is alive, as I suspect he is, evidence is scant as to what his actual role in the movement’s leadership is. Boko Haram is more than Abubakar Shekau, alive or dead.