Seemingly unthinkable Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau could be dead after his stronghold in the Sambisa forest in the state of Borno was transferred by rival Daesh-allied terrorists on Wednesday, intelligence services said.
Since Shekau took control of Boko Haram in 2009 from founder Mohammed Yusuf, Shekau has been reported dead several times, only to return.
In the latest attack, however, Shekau was seriously injured after trying to kill himself to avoid being caught by Daesh’s origin in the province of West Africa (ISWAP) that surrounded him after a series of battles, sources say.
Children gather in a camp for displaced people fleeing violence from Gulak, a border town attacked by Boko Haram militants in September 2014, northern state of Adamawa, Nigeria, January 31, 2015. (Reuters File Photo)
Nigerian media were filled with speculation that the man who made international headlines for kidnapping nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014 and 330 Nigerian students at the end of last year may finally be dead.
But 24 hours after the news came out, the army was still investigating while details of what happened and where Shekau was may be unclear.
Here’s what we know.
More than 40,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced from the conflict in northeastern Nigeria since 2009, and the fighting has spread to parts of neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Since 2016, two rival factions from the Boko Haram movement have emerged after disagreements over Shekau’s indiscriminate attacks on Muslim civilians and his use of women and children as suicide bombers.
Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, March 24, 2015 in Kano, Nigeria. (AP File Photo)
On the one hand, Shekau’s Boko Haram faction, formally known as Jama’tu Ahli’s Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad or JAS, was based in the Sambisa forest. It also operates in the extreme northern border with neighboring Cameroon and the border areas of Chad and Niger.
The other is ISWAP with its stronghold in the Alagarno forest and the areas of Lake Chad, a large body of water with scattered islands.
Both groups target Nigeria’s armed forces and those from states bordering northeastern Nigeria. But sporadic clashes have also broken out between the two factions over influence and territory.
According to local intelligence services, a new round of fighting broke out in April during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Boko Haram fighters transferred an ISWAP brigade as they transported weapons to one of their main camps, sources said. Several ISWAP men were killed.
In retaliation, ISWAP launched an attack on a Boko Haram camp on Lake Chad. Both sides suffered losses. But sources said, ISWAP took the fight against Boko Haram directly in the Sambisa forest further south.
According to information from two intelligence services, a convoy of ISWAP trucks mounted with machine guns entered the Sambisa forest area on Monday.
A group went directly to the Boko Haram camp in Sabilul Huda, where Shekau had sought refuge. His faction had recently been weakened by military airstrikes.
ISWAP fighters managed to neutralize their guards and surrounded the house where Shekau had been held, sources say.
What happened next is not entirely clear, but Shekau was seriously injured when he tried to kill himself to avoid being taken alive.
Intelligence sources said Shekau shot himself in the chest and was later rescued unconscious by some of his men and taken to an unknown location.
“The truth is that he can hardly survive his wounds,” said a source.
Dead or alive?
Sources are unclear whether Shekau survived, as Boko Haram leaders have survived several reports of his death over the years, including by the Nigerian army.
The spokesman for the Nigerian army could not confirm any of the details and said an investigation was still ongoing.
Neither ISWAP nor Boko Haram have released any communications about the attack on Sambisa or where Shekau is located.
Is ISWAP taking over?
Whether he is seriously injured or dead, the loss of Shekau would be a major blow to his Boko Haram faction, where he was a key figure for several years, analysts said.
ISWAP has already become the more dominant force in the northeastern part of Nigeria, demonstrating its ability to carry out complex attacks on the armed forces.
Its warriors have recently exceeded several army bases.
Taking Shekau’s Sambisa forest hold would enable ISWAP to consolidate territory it already has in the Alagarno Forest and southern Chad Sea, enabling the group to control roads leading to the Borno capital Maiduguri.
While some pro-Shekau brigades along Cameroon’s border and in Niger and Chad may want autonomy, ISWAP can now access a pool of Shekau’s warriors and a partial reunion may be underway, said Vincent Foucher, a fellow at the French National Center. for Science Research.
“Of course it is under discussion, all these guys are connected, they know each other and negotiations must take place. There are still some unknown but what is clear is that it is a big win for ISWAP,” he said.
“Many people are happy to see Shekau dead, but it’s not very good news if ISWAP becomes the single (terrorist group) in the area.”