Despite Abubakar Shekau’s reported death, Nigeria has a long way to become insurgency-free because a bigger threat has emerged in the form of ISWAP.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the notorious Boko Haram terror group, is reportedly dead. In the past, Shekau appeared in videos calling himself invincible, poking fun and using sarcasm at reports of his death. But this time, his enduring silence has left many finally believing that it could be true.
A rival group which emerged in the form of Daesh, or the Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP), released an audio tape saying the terror group had obeyed the orders of Daesh's global head, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, and had launched an ambush against Shekau in the dense forests of Sambia, a Boko Haram bastion.
The ISWAP's audio recording was obtained by Humangle, a respected Nigerian news website with strong knowledge of insurgency.
Instead of surrendering, ISWAP leader Abu Musab Al-Barnawi said that Shekau allegedly killed himself by detonating explosives.
“Shekau preferred to be humiliated in the afterlife than getting humiliated on earth,” Al-Barnawi added.
Shekau's reported death is significant for Nigeria and neighbouring countries in the Lake Chad region, which have suffered from the Boko Haram insurgency for years.
His brutal tactics disturbed even his commanders who objected to his indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians and use of women suicide bombers.
“This was someone who committed unimaginable terrorism. How many has he wasted? How many has he killed? How many has he terrorised,” said Al Barnawi.
In 2016, Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, a son of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf, formed a new faction and named it ISWAP. Daesh was quick to recognise Al Barnawi as its official leader in the region, denouncing Shekau for being too violent. Since then, Boko Haram and ISWAP have been arch-rivals.
The rise of ISWAP
Shekau’s death does not mean an end to the insurgency. Born as a critic of his oppressive tactics against civilians, ISWAP has emerged as a far more dominant force in the region and a more dangerous threat to Nigerian forces.
Unlike Shekau, the ISWAP leadership has allowed fellow Muslims who accepted its authority to live as long as they paid cash-based taxes for trading and agricultural activities.
Vincent Foucher, a research fellow with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said that, unlike the Shekau-led Boko Haram, ISWAP has not engaged in large scale massacres, plundering and forced recruitment.
“They provide a degree of law and order in Lake Chad, and civilians go there to do business or to live because there are precious natural resources - pastures, fish, highly productive agricultural land”, Foucher told TRT World.
With their ruling strategy, says Yan Saint-Pierre, a counter-terrorism expert at Modern Security Consulting Group, the group has created an “eco-system”.
“ISWAP's effectiveness thus far has been in creating a reliable 'eco system' in which they exert control and strong influence over the economy, justice, education, and security. There, the organization is in full control and can 'govern' an area with very limited opposition”, Saint-Pierre told TRT World.
ISWAP’s leader Barnawi has already drawn on some commanders from Shekau's faction and advanced into his Sambisa stronghold.
If the group succeeds in absorbing Shekau’s rank and file without causing any internal conflict, “then ISWAP will be an even more formidable adversary, with more territory, fighters and guns”, Foucher said.
However, Alex Thurston, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, predicts that in the long term the current stalemate will remain.
“I do not believe ISWAP will make a serious bid to capture Maiduguri, because doing so would likely invite greater external military intervention that would expose ISWAP to some of the same problems that confronted Shekau's Boko Haram when it overtly held territory in 2015, namely an intervention by Chad and Niger,” Thurston told TRT World.
“ISWAP can try to expand geographically, or they can try to deepen their control and sway over rural communities but they cannot try to build a real proto-state without risking some real consequences,” says Thurston.
The face of terror
Despite leading one of the world's deadliest terror outfits, many parts of Shekau’s life are still unknown.
Shekau was born in the northern Yobe state to poor farmer parents who had migrated from neighbouring Niger. In 1990, he moved to the Borno state capital of Maiduguri. There he embraced an exclusivist hardline Salafi ideology and met Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf.
Boko Haram was initially an unarmed movement that moved too far from the “infidel” Nigerian government, expanding its footprints in rural areas before going fully underground. But after their uprising was crushed by the Nigerian military, who killed as many as 800 Boko Haram members along with the founder Yusuf in 2009, his deputy Shekau took charge.
Shekau transformed the group into a full-blown terror organisation, unleashing unprecedented levels of violence. It targeted civilians with no remorse, attacked churches and mosques and military posts. It abducted little girls, turning some of them into suicide bombers who targeted crowded markets.
Shekau made global headlines in 2014 with the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the remote town of Chibok. He later vowed that he would “sell [the girls] in the market”. Most of the girls were released after long negotiations. However, seven years after the kidnapping, over 100 are still missing.
Under Shekau's leadership, Boko Haram turned large swathes of the northeast into a no-go territory, proclaiming a "caliphate" in the Borno town of Gwoza in 2014. However, a major offensive the following year by Nigerian troops backed by Cameroon, Chad and Niger drove the group out from most of the area it had once controlled.
The conflict has ebbed since then but it has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people, displacing another two million.
“Boko Haram was defined by Shekau as the group was framed by the cult of his personality. With Shekau's death, the group’s era is now over,” Saint-Pierre said.
“However, with the integration into ISWAP, the threat that Boko Haram fighters represent does not change. If anything, joining a new organization could make them more dangerous.”
The killing of Shekau by another militant group, both relieved and bothered the Nigerian and international security apparatus who spent huge amounts of financial resources trying to see him off. Only a day after local outlets reported the death of Shekau, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff General Ibrahim Attahiru died in a plane crash along with other 10 officers.
General Attahiru was appointed just a few months ago in January. Nigeria's security has dramatically deteriorated, with militant groups and active bandits gaining strength in the northeast and communal violence erupting every now and then.
As the Nigerian military has mostly withdrawn troops into better-defended garrisons from the smaller bases in rural areas of the northeast, it is unknown how it would confront ISWAP.
“[Shekau’s death] made the task more complicated now that Boko Haram fighters will be part of a more structured and effective organization, with better training and operational capabilities”, Saint-Pierre said.
Alex Thurston says he doesn't expect the Nigerian army to gain momentum in confronting insurgents now that Shekau is out of the picture.
“They [Nigerian army] are not, after all, the ones who killed Shekau, and they have not figured out how to meaningfully project authority into the countryside, nor have they figured out how to fight the insurgency without creating more insurgents”, Alex said.