On 20 May, a usually well-informed local news outlet reported that Boko Haram’s notorious leader Abubakar Shekau had died following a firefight with members of rivalrous splinter group Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). While Shekau has had a habit of resurrecting whenever pronounced dead in the past, this time he may be gone for good. Thus, his death may signal that ISWAP has eventually gained the upper hand in the militant groups’ internal battle. If it subsequently manages to assert dominance over the Shekau faction, this would strengthen its hand in northeastern Borno state and likely lead to more targeted and better-coordinated attacks there. In the medium term, expansion into north-western and central Nigeria would appear more likely than previously, although major logistical challenges remain.
It appears as though ISWAP fighters accomplished a feat Nigerian security forces persistently failed at for more than a decade, even though repeatedly announcing success. That Shekau was killed at the hands of a rivalrous group thus adds credibility to the news, first reported by the local news site HumAngle. However, the exact circumstances of his alleged death remain murky.
Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram, a homegrown jihadist movement with a local agenda that first emerged in 2009, chose to associate itself with the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2015. At that time, Boko Haram was under strong pressure from the Nigerian military and South African mercenaries. Affiliating itself with IS was thus meant to enhance their notoriety at a point in time when IS had reached its climax. Conversely, IS benefits from the perception of an active global network, which is increasingly important since the collapse of its ‘caliphate’ in 2017. However, it is important to stress that IS’s actual involvement in the Nigerian theater remains rather limited to date.
In fact, Boko Haram’s split and the emergence of ISWAP in 2016 was apparently due to a bottom-up power tussle, rather than orchestrated by the IS leadership, even though the latter took issue with Shekau’s strategies, including the enslavement of fellow Muslims and the use of Muslim women and children as suicide bombers. Ever since, the two factions had been at odds with each other and frequently clashed in their fight for supremacy in Borno state.
Shekau’s demise could leave the field now to the more capable of the two groups. ISWAP is regarded to be more disciplined and following a clear anti-government and anti-Western agenda. Unlike Shekau’s faction, which had degenerated into a banditry group indiscriminately terrorizing the local population, ISWAP focuses on hard security targets. If they manage to integrate Shekau’s fighters, stepping up their campaign against Nigerian security forces across Borno state is a very likely short-term prospect.
Medium-term, getting rid of the local competition may allow ISWAP to contemplate expansion into western and central Nigeria, potentially forming alliances with armed bandits and herdsmen militias that have been proliferating there in recent years. However, expanding out of its northeastern core area – where it can rely on its local knowledge and support networks – will prove a formidable logistical challenge that Boko Haram proved unable to resolve for more than a decade.