Abubakar Shekau is deade. What does that mean for Boko Haram

Abubakar Shekau is dead. Despite conflicting reports from the Wall Street Journal (who verified that Shekau was dead) and Agence France-Press (who said he was wounded), HumAngle, a Nigeria based news agency that has sources within Boko Haram, says the leader is dead. HumAngle even reported more details about the battle in the Sambisa Forest. According to the agency, the leader of the Boko Haram faction Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah Lid Da’wah Wa’l- Jihad (JAS) and one of his lieutenants were cornered by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) during a raid of his encampment in Borno State. A former ISWAP leader, Bako Gorgore, attempted to negotiate with Shekau to surrender. During the negotiations, Shekau ordered his lieutenant to detonate his suicide vest but the lieutenant was shot before he could do so. Shekau however detonated his own suicide vest killing himself and Bako Gorgore.

The ISWAP raid was the culmination of months of planning. After many ideological and physical clashes between ISWAP leaders and Shekau, ISWAP planned for the removal of the faction leader by recruiting several JAS commanders to work as moles. After the raid, ISWAP either killed, scattered, or recruited the remaining JAS members (HumAngle).

The scattered Boko Haram brigades could unite under ISWAP. Last year, the US government estimated ISWAP forces numbered between 3,500 and 5,000, while the JAS forces were 1,500 to 2,000 strong (CRS). The defection of top JAS commanders is likely a sign that all of Boko Haram is weakening and members are moving away from Shekau’s brutal tactics. The JAS forces in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad once loyal to Shekau are likely to unite under the ISWAP banner. A single terrorist organization across northeastern Nigeria would control access to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. It would also give ISWAP access to territory from Mali all the way to Cameroon. It’s possible some JAS brigades remain independent but it’s unclear if they would remain loyal to Shekau’s ideals or still pose a threat to ISWAP.

It will take more than a military response to dislodge ISWAP. The group has been steadily building a relationship with civilians in Borno state and around Lake Chad by using “taxes” to provide services that normally the government would supply – like access to fresh water, grazing lands, seeds and fertilizer for farmers, and security. ISWAP, unlike JAS, doesn’t attack Muslim civilians. Instead, the group protects them from JAS attacks, something the Nigerian government has been unable to do. This strategy has built support (or at least tolerance) for ISWAP in the territories it controls. Any strategy to defeat ISWAP will need a non-military component to restore services in the Lake Chad basin.

ISWAP is not JAS but is a critical threat to non-Muslims, students, teachers, civil servants, and NGOs. Even though ISWAP is less brutal than JAS, they are still a very dangerous and violent force in the region. People in Adamawa and Borno states are in immediate danger. The group is not likely to stay contained within the northeast or even the northwest. This is made easier as the Nigerian military is spread thin confronting security issues in other parts of the country—like the IPOB/ESN separatists in the south. The Nigerian government may require outside help-Chad, France, and the United States are good candidates but any reluctance on their part could be an opportunity for China or Russia.

By Adam Ragozzino

Adam Ragozzino is a Boston-based analyst who has worked as a research and policy analyst in the US. Currently, he is an independent consultant and runs Acies Lumen, LLC, a fledgling geopolitical research firm. He writes about international affairs and conflict with a particular focus on Africa. When not chained to a desk or under lockdown, you can find him riding or skiing in the northeast US.

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