Nigeria: Shekau, the dreaded warlord who chose Jihad over family

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Wednesday, 26 May 2021 17:12, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:52

A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga
A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, in the north-eastern state of Borno, Nigeria May 13, 2013. REUTERS/Tim Cocks

Abubakar Shekau, leader of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, once the world's deadliest terrorist organisation and which is known to have killed at least 30,000 people in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, has been reported dead. Far from fixing things, this may well strengthen ISWAP, a more 'effective' terrorist outfit which split from Boko Haram. Experts say this spells danger for Nigeria and the region, where the war on terror has raged ineffectually for over a decade.

When news broke on Thursday 20 May that the irascible Shekau is (finally?) dead, many media outlets waited for some hours, some until the next day, to report the development which was the fourth time the Boko Haram leader has been reported dead.

Unlike in previous cases, however, there is a new actor on the stage: his former loyalists under the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Insider sources and intelligence memos cited by the local media said Shekau blew himself up after ISWAP fighters tried to get him to surrender after an offensive on his camp in the thorn-tree-studded Sambisa forest, the notorious Boko Haram hideout.

One report stated that during the operation conducted by Bako Gorgore, one of ISWAP’s most influential soldiers, Shekau was asked to voluntarily relinquish power and order his fighters to declare allegiance to the rival group’s authority. He declined and eventually detonated a suicide vest he was wearing — living up to his vow never to be caught alive.

The news of his death is being taken with a pinch of salt among Nigerians considering how elusive he has been over the years — a $7m bounty by the United States government still hangs over his head since 2013.

While the Nigerian military says it is still investigating the development, Jack Fidelis, a security expert based in the northeastern Borno state, where the insurgency is concentrated, says it is too early to call it a big moment or victory for the country “until it is able to turn the tide against the insurgents and take advantage of the situation.”

Shekau, the dreaded warlord who chose Jihad over family

Born in Shekau village in Yobe state, Shekau who was known for using child fighters to blow up towns across Nigeria, was fearless just as he was ruthless. He had threatened to enforce Islamic Sharia law in Nigeria and neighbouring countries and was so radical that he was feared even among his commanders.

In the 1990s, he abandoned his studies at the then-Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies and later met one Mohammed Yusuf, who preached Jihad and said that western education — Boko — is sinful — Haram.

Not long after meeting Yusuf, Shekau left home to join the Boko Haram founder as his deputy. His mother said in 2015 that she had not seen him since he left to team up with Yusuf, and yearned to convert him back: “He brought a lot of problems to many people. Where can I meet him to tell him that these things he is doing are very bad? This is not the character I gave him.”

That desire to reunite with her son never paid off as he eventually turned out to be his biggest nemesis in the hands of ISWAP.

What difference does ISWAP make?

In March 2015, Shekau and the entire leadership of Boko Haram (officially known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad) swore allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and rebranded the group as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

But ISWAP fractured internally about a year later when the ISIS leadership named Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of the late Boko Haram founder, as its new Wali (leader), infuriating Shekau who vowed never to back down and subsequently denounced al-Barnawi as an infidel.

The infighting within the group caused it to split into factions, ISWAP under al-Barnawi and Boko Haram under Shekau.

However, unlike Boko Haram which is notorious for killing any perceived enemy, ISWAP fighters often try to convert those who cross their path and are closer to residents in the Lake Chad region than even the government.

According to the International Crisis Group, the group is “filling a gap left by decades of poor governance and neglect in the region (and) has cultivated stronger ties with local residents than Boko Haram ever could by helping recover lost cattle, settling disputes over grazing and fishing rights, fending off rustlers, providing care to expectant mothers in rural areas, and imposing swift if terrible justice upon criminals, sometimes including when they are ISWAP members.”

Stronger ISWAP: bigger problems for Nigeria & Lake Chad basin?

Although ISWAP and Boko Haram have clashed in the past, the latest offensive — said to come after attempts by ISIS emirs and sheikhs to advise the latter against abusing the Islamic State’s themes — was the first time either of the rival groups was seeking to take over power from the other.

Analysts say this underscores ISWAP’s authority and the support it could be getting from the Islamic State. More importantly, it proves its dominance in the north-east and the Lake Chad basin, and having an upper hand in the insurgency will strengthen them, according to Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar who has researched the activities of the groups for about eight years and is now the director of PhD Programme at City, University of London.

“ISWAP has more international connection because of their link to ISIS and they may have been getting some form of support, and probably even weapons, from them,” Abubakar says.

“They are seen as stronger and smarter than the Shekau group because they are not killing every individual they come across; they tend to see whether they can convert them and if they refuse, they fight them.”

With an estimated 5,000 fighters under its command, ISWAP is credited with some of the most audacious and fatal terror attacks in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, including in November 2018 when they killed over 100 Nigerian soldiers during an attack on an army base in Borno state after earlier abducting 110 schoolgirls in the neighbouring Yobe state in February of that year.

There are also concerns that the latest onslaught gives ISWAP — and ISIS by extension — access to more arms, personnel and locations in north-eastern Nigeria.

Fidelis, who had previously worked for the government in Nigeria, argued that from the way ISWAP has been operating, “they can easily absorb Shekau’s fighters and become a single formidable force” taking the fight to the security forces.

Moreover, getting rid of Shekau may become a morale booster for ISWAP to confront state forces, with Boko Haram seen as a “major distraction” in their fight against the military, according to Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist and one of the few persons with access to Boko Haram.

Shekau’s reported death also keeps Sambisa Forest — stretching across 60,000 sq km and about three times the size of Israel — and the Lake Chad under the control of ISWAP, which means they can “weigh decisively on all major access roads to Maiduguri (the capital city of Borno and northeast Nigeria)”, according to Vincent Foucher, who has studied Boko Haram for many years at the French National Centre for Science Research.

What happens next?

Nearly a week after the clash in Sambisa, the Nigerian military is yet to launch an offensive to take advantage of the situation, once again casting doubts on its determination to root out the bandits from their hideout once and for all.

Their delay to act — which may not be unconnected to the death of Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Ibrahim Attahiru — is worrisome, according to Fidelis. He adds that the terror war is “not being fought as it should because the Nigerian military has all it takes to crush these terrorists.”

Tasiu agrees that the security forces must be proactive with regards to events unfolding in Sambisa and the Boko Haram war in general.

“We are dealing with Nigerian security forces who, for several years, claim to have an upper hand over the groups (Boko Haram) but apparently, some of the things they were telling us were not really that accurate,” he says.

“Recently, we can see that they are resurging and the Nigerian security forces are losing some ground there. So, are they really committed in terms of adequate and appropriate weapons, motivation among the fighting forces, the government providing the support they require and them showing true patriotism in fighting?”

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