DAKAR, Senegal — The Nigerian military is investigating claims that Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader who orchestrated mass kidnappings of schoolchildren during his decadelong war against Western influence, has died in northeast Nigeria.
“We are looking into it carefully,” Nigerian Army spokesman Mohammed Yerima said. “In the past, we have reported that he is dead and then he comes back. It has been embarrassing.”
An internal report by Nigeria’s intelligence agency said the militant commander — known for his grisly videos and use of child suicide bombers in massacres across the Lake Chad Basin — detonated explosives that killed him Wednesday when fighters with the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, tried to capture him in his Sambisa Forest hideout.
The report was obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed as authentic by two Nigerian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Nigerian military and regional forces have declared Shekau dead at least four times since 2009. After such announcements, Shekau released video messages, mocking the government while firing bullets into the air.
The deaths of extremist commanders are notoriously hard to verify — especially in the dense bush where Boko Haram has carved out its stronghold. If a body turns up, Yerima said, the Nigerian authorities will rely on genetic testing before issuing any confirmation.
By Friday, local media outlets were mixed on whether Nigeria’s most wanted man was dead or just injured.
“We should take this with a pinch of salt because this is the fifth time Shekau has been officially killed,” said Bulama Bukarti, a Nigerian conflict researcher in London focused on Boko Haram.
In previous cases, military officials have taken credit for Shekau’s death. This is the first time his demise has been linked to extremist adversaries.
ISWAP — an offshoot that split from Shekau in 2016 — has long taken issue with Shekau’s pattern of brutalizing civilians. When Boko Haram stormed villages over the last 11 years, fighters tended to kill most residents, largely Muslims, and kidnap the rest.
Battles have periodically erupted between the factions, killing hundreds of fighters on both sides.
ISWAP is known to govern remote areas and collect taxes from residents in exchange for protection while striking at primarily military targets. (The organization has also punished people for cooperating with the government, researchers say.)
Shekau’s faction outraged those extremists over the years by staging attacks on what they viewed as their territory. In one 2018 statement, ISWAP called Shekau a “tumour” to extract.
That tension threatened his reign. Shekau commanded between 1,500 and 2,000 militants, according to a 2019 estimate from the International Crisis Group, while ISWAP had as many as 5,000.
Lately the larger force had been expanding its reach across northern Nigeria and into Cameroon, said Yan St-Pierre, a counterterrorism adviser and head of the Modern Security Consulting Group in Berlin.
“The last remaining domino was the Sambisa forest,” he said — Shekau’s stronghold.
Since the conflict began, Boko Haram and its offshoot have killed 30,000 people around the Lake Chad Basin. The group’s violence has driven more than 2 million people from their homes in Nigeria and neighboring countries.
Shekau took control in 2009 after the death of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf.
Yusuf had been a firebrand preacher, calling for the strict application of Islamic law. He drew massive crowds in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state, advocating against Western education — Boko Haram’s name loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden” — but did not openly coach his followers to embrace violence.
Then Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf during an uprising, and Shekau assumed power, steering the movement into a bloody insurgency.
Fighters stormed villages, torched dwellings and drafted people into their ranks. Men became soldiers. Women were forced into marriage and endured a culture of sexual assault.
Shekau exploited children as suicide bombers on a large scale. Boko Haram routinely strapped bombs onto girls and sent them into crowds.
The group was behind the 2014 kidnappings of the Chibok girls — a mass abduction of 276 students from their school — and has inspired a slew of copycat captors across Nigeria’s north.
If Shekau is indeed dead, the insecurity rocking life in the region is still far from over, said Matthew Page, formerly the U.S. intelligence community’s top Nigeria expert.
Boko Haram fighters may defect to ISWAP, creating more unity between the militants. Or the infighting could intensify, which carries the risk of further uprooting communities.
“Just taking out one person isn’t a curtain call on the group,” Page said. “Over time, you may see degradation because there are junior terrorists running the show. But there can be volatile, unpredictable scenarios going forward.”