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Boko Haram’s Terrorist Behind the Curtain
Meet the man who transformed an obscure proselytizing group into the deadliest terrorist organization on earth.
ABUJA, Nigeria — A week after Abubakar Shekau, the enigmatic leader of Boko Haram, appeared in a grainy, seven-minute YouTube video and declared, “For me, the end has come,” the Nigerian militant group released a second video that seemed to say the opposite.
The difference between the two videos was striking. The first one, released on March 24, was of low quality and featured a melancholy Shekau thanking his followers for their dedication but declining to issue any of his customary threats against the Nigerian government. Unsurprisingly, it inspired premature claims that he had surrendered or was preparing to abdicate leadership. The second video, released on April 1, was as slickly produced as it was unambiguous about the group’s intention to continue fighting.
“You should know that there is no truce, there is no negotiations, there is no surrender,” says a masked man who explicitly confirms that Shekau remains in charge. (Shekau does not appear in the video.) “This war between us will not stop.”
Boko Haram is constantly evolving. As it has come under increased pressure from a regional military coalition, the group has clearly pivoted — but it’s not yet clear in which direction. Last year, it forged an alliance with the Islamic State, but at the same time it has embraced asymmetric terrorist tactics not designed to capture or hold territory, a move seemingly at odds with its stated goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate. Last week, the Pentagon pointed to an arms shipment from Islamic State fighters in Libya that was intercepted before it could reach Boko Haram as evidence of deeper cooperation between the two groups. But much about the alliance, and about Boko Haram’s ultimate intentions, remains shrouded in mystery.
Central to that mystery is the mind of Abubakar Shekau, who has led the Islamist militant group for the past six years. Rarely has so little been known about the life of such an important political figure. If anything, he has mostly been known for his talent for escaping death. Nigerian and Cameroonian troops claim to have killed him on multiple occasions, but each time he has re-emerged to taunt them. Some who knew Shekau as a youngster claim he is not the same man who appears in the group’s propaganda videos, and that his name has been appropriated by a series of body doubles. Before the somber March 24 video, he had not been heard from in more than a year.
What little we know about Shekau’s personal trajectory tracks with the course of Boko Haram’s evolution over the past six years. But now, as the contradictory videos suggest, Boko Haram could be finally outgrowing him.
What is known for certain about the leader of Boko Haram is that he was born in a remote village in Yobe State, near Nigeria’s northeastern border with Niger, in the 1970s or early 1980s. (Since birth certificates were not common back then in this remote and impoverished region, estimates of Shekau’s age vary widely.) In 1990 his father sent him away for Quranic study in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, where a charismatic cleric named Mohammed Yusuf would later found Boko Haram. Shekau spent 11 years studying in Maiduguri, much of it engaged in fierce argumentation with his teacher. Baba Fanani, the son of Shekau’s teacher, told the New York Times that the future militant leader was “the most troublesome” of all his father’s students.
The teacher eventually became alarmed by Shekau’s radicalism and expelled him from the madrasa. Shekau then enrolled at the Borno State College of Legal and Islamic Studies, where he met and befriended Mamman Nur, a future Boko Haram commander, who introduced him to Yusuf, the leader of the group. During this period, Boko Haram was not the violent terrorist organization it is today. It was a peaceful proselytizing group, regarded as eccentric and severe, but not a threat to national security.
Shekau quickly bought in to Yusuf’s stark worldview, which revolved around a puritanical brand of Islam free of the influences of Western culture. But even at this early stage, there were indications that the student’s zeal outshone that of the teacher. As one of Yusuf’s friends recalled in an interview with the Financial Times: “Shekau was always studying and writing, and was more devoted and modest than anyone else.… Even when Boko Haram was peaceful, he was somehow more feared than Yusuf.”
Although Boko Haram eschewed violence at this stage, Nigerian authorities regarded its members suspiciously. And when some of them refused to abide by a motorbike helmet law in July 2009, the police responded violently, setting off a string of retaliatory attacks on police installations. Yusuf was arrested and summarily executed during the brutal crackdown by Nigerian security forces that followed in which at least 800 people died.
Just before he was killed, an interrogator asked Yusuf who his deputy was. He succinctly replied, “Mallam Abubakar Shekau.”
Shekau was shot during the same 2009 onslaught, and Nigerian authorities initially assumed he was dead. But he survived, fled abroad for a year, and returned to resurrect Boko Haram in 2010. Shekau rallied Yusuf’s followers to avenge their leader’s murder and to carry on his legacy. But he also projected his aggressive personality onto the group, strong-arming some of his rivals and having others killed. Once he had consolidated control, he led Boko Haram on a murderous rampage that would leave more than 15,000 people dead during the next five years.
In March of last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, officially renaming itself the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Little is known about the precise nature of the cooperation between the two groups, but Boko Haram has since put out a number of sleek propaganda videos that mimic those of the Islamic State.
It is for this reason that the first video of Shekau released last month is curious. The video is poorly produced and it refers to Boko Haram by its pre-Islamic State merger name, Sunni Group Committed to the Promotion of Islamic Proselytizing and Jihad. (It should be noted that the group has never called itself Boko Haram. The term is a pejorative applied to the group by outsiders.) The logo and soundtrack used in the video also resemble those used by Boko Haram in its pre-Islamic State incarnation.
Similarly unexpected was Shekau’s somber and subdued tenor, which is conveniently consistent with the government’s narrative that Boko Haram is on the ropes. Perhaps it is too convenient. It is possible that the video was recorded long ago and released by Nigerian authorities, who are engaged in a propaganda war as well as a military war with Boko Haram. Another intriguing possibility is that that a more conciliatory faction within Boko Haram released the video to show its willingness to engage in dialogue with the government.
The release of the second video on April 1 offers additional reasons to doubt that Shekau was behind the first video. Featuring masked men brandishing AK47s, it is of much higher quality, uses current ISWAP terminology, and bears the hallmarks of an Islamic State-inspired Boko Haram production. It also illustrates something important about the rapidly evolving Nigerian militant group: It is not just a one-man show.
Although it reaffirms Shekau’s leadership, the video does not show his face or give him a prominent speaking role. The Boko Haram leader has gotten a striking lack of screen-time since the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, a fact that partially reflects the group’s adoption of international jihadist hagiography. But it also likely indicates Boko Haram has other powerful commanders who do not wish to build a personality cult around Shekau.
One such commander is Khalid al-Barnawi, who has been described as “the most sophisticated extremist in Nigeria.” Al-Barnawi has ties to al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led the Ansaru splinter group that briefly defected from, and then reintegrated back into, Boko Haram. The former head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency claimed that Al-Barnawi brokered the alliance with the Islamic State. Nigerian security forces reportedly arrested Al-Barnawi this month, a feat that one official hailed as “our biggest breakthrough against terrorism in Nigeria ever.”
But there are others rivals waiting in the wings who could eclipse Shekau and accelerate the group’s internationalist trajectory. Boko Haram’s expansion into Chad and Cameroon already take it far beyond the domestic insurgency initially envisioned by its leader. Moreover, the group has multiple factions, some of which do not see eye to eye with Shekau on theological as well as military questions. It’s not clear that Shekau exercises operational command over these factions or that he’s capable of managing internal dissent.
Boko Haram is mutating so rapidly that is difficult to keep an accurate picture of the group in focus, even when viewing its propaganda videos. In less than a decade, it has evolved from a reclusive local sect, to a national security threat to Africa’s most populous country, to an Islamic State affiliate with the potential to destabilize much of West Africa.
Boko Haram has outgrown Nigeria. The question now is whether it’s also outgrown Shekau.
Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images