Lagos, Nigeria – On May 19, Abubakar Shekau, longtime leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram armed group, was reported dead – again.
While details remain murky, local media reports citing intelligence sources claimed Shekau detonated his suicide vest when rival fighters of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) tried to capture him in his hideout in Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.
Shekau has been reported killed or seriously wounded several times in recent years, including in official statements released by Nigeria’s military – only to resurface in online videos weeks later to ridicule such declarations. This time, the Nigerian army has said it is investigating the reports and has yet to issue a definitive statement.
Still, the reports have been met with mixed reactions and raised questions about the security implications in the country.
“What a Shekau death means is the Islamic State [ISWAP] is set to come out as the dominant player in the other side of the conflict, which of course means more problems for the Nigerian military,” Confidence MacHarry, geopolitical security analyst at Lagos-based SMB Intelligence, told Aljazeera.
For more than a decade, the Nigerian army has struggled to contain Boko Haram’s violent attacks in northeastern Nigeria, in a worsening conflict that has also spilled over into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. More than 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed and some 3 million forced from their homes.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was first elected in 2015 on the back of a promise to tackle insecurity in the northeastern region within two years. In his first year in office, the military, with assistance from regional troops, pushed the fighters back and retook key towns, and Buhari famously declared that Boko Haram has been “technically” defeated.
However, the armed group and its offshoots continued staging attacks, while the military’s campaigns were undermined by a number of factors, including corruption and inadequate equipment as well as funding and workforce shortages.
More recently, the army has lost a string of towns in the northeast and Lake Chad region and drawn sharp criticism over its failure to crush the fighters.
If Shekau has indeed been killed and ISWAP fighters are responsible, some analysts say it will further reduce Nigerians’ confidence in the country’s military to rout the fighters and end the conflict.
“The first implication [of Shekau’s killing at the hands of ISWAP] for national security is a larger interpretation about the capacity of the Nigerian state,” Freedom Onuoha, a counterterrorism expert and senior lecturer at the University of Nigeria, told Al Jazeera.
“It also shows that the people’s lack of confidence in the capacity of the national security forces to rein in criminal actors would decline further,” he said.
“That’s a major loss from a national security point of view.”
Who is Abubakar Shekau?
In the 2000s, Shekau was the deputy of Muhammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram. In fiery speeches, Yusuf criticised government corruption and what he believed was the incomplete implementation of Islamic law in northeast Nigeria – Boko Haram translates to “Western education is forbidden”.
During clashes in 2009 between the followers of the religious group and security forces, Yusuf was arrested and shot in police custody. Shekau then took the reins of the ragtag prayer group and led his followers to launch attacks across the northeast region.
From the start, Shekau gained notoriety for his brutality.
He sent children and women on suicide missions, often targeting crowded markets and mosques. His fighters looted, kidnapped and killed civilians without mercy. In 2014, Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok shocked the world and drew widespread condemnation. More than 100 of the schoolgirls are still missing.
In 2015, Shekau – albeit reluctantly – pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS) and the group took up the name of ISWAP. But the following year, some of his followers, uncomfortable with his leadership style, splintered from Shekau’s forces.
Led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of the Boko Haram founder Yusuf, they gained ISIL’s recognition and retained the ISWAP name, while Shekau remained in charge of a faction that reassumed the armed group’s original name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or JAS.
ISWAP, whose main target is the Nigerian military, has grown in influence and power in recent years, with an estimated 3,500-5,000 fighters overshadowing the 1,500-2,000 in the Shekau-led faction, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The two groups have been embroiled in a protracted feud over a number of ideological differences, with hundreds of their members reported dead in previous rounds of fighting.
“It [ISWAP] has notched military successes and made inroads among Muslim civilians by treating them better than its parent organisation and by filling gaps in governance and service delivery,” ICG said in a 2019 report.
“By filling gaps in governance and service delivery, it has cultivated a level of support among local civilians that Boko Haram never enjoyed and has turned neglected communities in the area and islands in Lake Chad into a source of economic support,” it added, noting that the group digs wells, polices cattle rustling and provides a modicum of healthcare in the communities it controls, where “its taxation is generally accepted by civilians”.
If Shekau has been killed this time, some experts said they expect some of his fighters to join forces with ISWAP to form a formidable force against the Nigerian military.
“What we’re going to see is the reabsorption of some of Shekau’s terror network in the northeast inherited by the new ISWAP leadership,” Confidence said. “ISWAP will to some extent inherit Shekau’s fighters because many of them are dependent on financial assistance and a central leadership to survive,” he added.
However, Dickson Osajie, an international security expert, disagreed.
“It won’t be 100 percent defection,” Osajie said. “The fighters who have pledged allegiance to Shekau would want to regroup and take revenge for Shekau’s death, causing more crisis.”
With the fight against armed groups far from over, regardless of whether Shekau is still alive, Onuoha said it is time for the army to change its strategy.
“The military needs to reconfigure as a matter of urgency the overall intelligence gathering-sharing architecture,” he said. “They need to look at strategic communication, working with other agencies to deal with issues like the financing systems of terror groups like ISWAP.”
In the past, security analysts monitoring the insecurity in the northeast have often criticised the military’s defensive approach. And for Osajie, an ex-military, the army must act swiftly to take advantage of the situation surrounding Shekau’s fate.
“In security management, you don’t give the enemy opportunity to plan,” he said. “Sadly, one issue with Nigeria is they are giving the enemy time to plan. Instead, the military should carry out an offensive attack against the remnants of Boko Haram in Sambisa forest because their morale is currently down,” he told Al Jazeera.