One of the most brutal jihadist militants on earth has reportedly been replaced.
On August 12th, Idris Deby, Chad’s autocratic president, announced that Abubakr Shekau, the leader of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, had been deposed and replaced by a new leader more open to compromise .
It should be noted that Deby is hardly the most reliable source of information on the fight against terrorism in west Africa.
In March of 2014, the Chadian government claimed the army had killed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an assertion that was later disproved. And information on Boko Haram’s inner workings is notably scarce, even compared to other, often-time secretive jihadist militant groups.
But there’s at least some reason to take this claim seriously. Shekau has not appeared in public or put out an audio or video message since March, and did not appear in the group’s latest propaganda video in early August.
He’s famously obsessive about safety and operational security, behaving in ways that suggest an acute sense of imminent danger even within Boko Haram’s remote safe-haven in northern Nigeria.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies told Business Insider, Shakau was practically unique among major jihadist figures for using multiple body doubles in his video messages. And Boko Haram’s March 2015 alliance with ISIS provided a potential motive for pushing out Shekau.
Gartenstein-Ross said there’s insufficient information to determine whether Shekau has actually been removed from the group’s leadership. But he said that if there were an internal move against him, it would signal a shift in factional leadership, rather than a change in Boko Haram’s overall strategy or direction.
“It wouldn’t really be a replacement of him as leader,” Gartenstein-Ross speculates, while cautioning that the internal dynamics of the groups are incredibly difficult to discern. “It would instead be a faction, whether bigger or smaller, that’s peeling off in the wake of the decision to pledge to ISIS.”
Numerous regional jihadist leaders have gained some kind of global profile over the past decade, and Shekau stands out from this group for his sheer viciousness. Shekau took over Boko Haram in 2009, at a time when the group had lost much of its top-level leadership.
By 2014, Boko Haram controlled nearly all of Borno state, with the exception of the major population center of Maidurgri. And it was murdering at an appalling clip. Boko Haram killed 6,000 people in 2014 alone and has killed 11,000 since 2011.
A January attack on the town of Baga, near Lake Chad, left several hundred people dead. The group also galvanised international opposition by abducting over 200 young girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria in April of 2014, sparking the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
This brutality, along with the seeming indifference of a Nigerian state that barely contested some of Boko Haram’s gains in the country’s remote northeastern border region, created ripe conditions for the group to seize large expanses of territory.
Shekau exhibited a total absence of moral scruples or respect for human life in carving out his group’s terrorist enclave and turning Boko Haram into a player in international jihadism. But if Shekau has actually lost even nominal control of Boko Haram, it could be this outsize ambition that’s causing the rift.
Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to ISIS in March, a notable development considering the group’s past ties with Al Qaeda. It’s possible that the Baga massacre was appalling enough to alienate Boko Haram from its supporters in Al Qaeda’s hierarchy; it’s also possible that the Nigerian group wanted to associate itself with what then seemed to be the rising force in global jihadism.
Either way, the ISIS partnership came just before Boko Haram experienced a series of setbacks at the hands of the Chadian, Cameroonian, and Nigerien militaries — and around the same time the security-minded former general Mohammadu Buhari was elected president in Nigeria.
If Shekau was actually deposed, the shrinking of Boko Haram’s domain, along with resentments from more pro-al Qaeda elements inside the group might have led to his ouster.
If he actually were removed, the upheaval could signal an internal conflict pitting ISIS-leaning elements within the group against pushback from a more al Qaeda-aligned faction.
This would dispel the once-prevalent sense of ISIS’s inevitable spread throughout the jihadist world, and its victory in the fight for extremist hearts and minds. The rise of a pro-al Qaeda faction within ISIS’s primary sub-Saharan African affiliate would cast doubt on ISIS’s ability to contend as a global extremist force.
But there’s no current way of knowing if that’s what’s really going on.
“Boko Haram is one of the more inscrutable groups in terms of its inner workings,” says Gartenstein-Ross.
There might be significant infighting, or even the removal of one of this ear’s most brutal jihadist leaders. But it’s Boko Haram, and the truth might not be known until a document cache or declassified US intelligence assessment emerges — assuming it’s ever known at all.
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