Shekau of Boko Haram is dead: what’s next after ISWAP takeover?

Recently, news emerged that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is dead, though this is not the first time his death news will go viral. He had been confirmed dead many times. But this time around, his death news was gathered from multiple sources.

Although various stories have cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding the death of Abubakar Shekau, the “infamous” terror organization commander, with many claiming that he might still be alive. Bunnaj Africa learnt that Shekau had surrendered and had met with ISWAP fighters for several hours, during which he was asked to willingly abandon control. Instead of refusing, he chose to blow himself up.

Shekau has been the leader of the Jam’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (JAS) faction of Boko Haram since 2009 and until his death. The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which split from JAS in 2016, invaded his group’s camp in the Sambisa woodland area on his “death day”

Shekau Death’s connection with ISWAP

Abubakar Shekau’s death came as a result of his malice with the rival group— ISWAP. It was learnt that the  Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), the splinter branch proceeded into the Alagarno and Lake Chad Basins, dislodging or capturing Boko Haram assets and establishing itself as the axis’ dominating terror force.

In retaliation, Shekau’s fighters would disarm and execute ISWAP members if they were overpowered, believing them to be traitors (khawarij). But when ISWAP warriors overpowered Shekau’s troops, they usually disarmed them, preached to them, and let them go.

ISWAP had taken a peaceful stance for almost a year, which allowed it to acquire the trust of many of Shekau’s fighters and leaders. Many of Shekau’s top fighters were either neutralized or cooperated with ISWAP on D-day— the day he died, as this however made it simple to capture Shekau.

ISWAP, which claims four governorates in the region, ordered Bako Gorgore, the Timbuktu axis’ wali (governor) and ameeru-l-fiha (military commander), to lead the offensive on Shekau’s camp. After the Lake Chad islands, the governorate is regarded as one of the most important ISWAP positions. ISWAP militants in the area are closer to Shekau’s sphere of influence and hence have access to more information.

After disarming him and his fighter, Bako Gorgore approached him with a top ISWAP fighter and engaged in a dialogue with Shekau. They attempted to persuade Shekau and his companion to take off their suicide vests and surrender. They had also promised Shekau that if he surrendered, they would be kind to him and confine him to one of ISWAP’s camps.

Adamantly, Shekau instructed the top fighter with him to detonate his improvised explosive device by command but Gorgore’s aide shot him before he could carry out the order.

Shekau then detonated his suicide vest, killing himself as well as Gorgore. Those with Gorgore were at a safe distance at the time, and thus survived the explosion. This was on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, after refusing to surrender following the raid of his hideaway by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).

ISWAP chief Abu Musab Albarnawi, whose recording was obtained by HumAngle, a Nigerian foremost media covering crisis and crime reports, revealed that Shekau was described as “the leader of disobedience and corruption”. He said the former terrorist commander was caught “in the most humiliating manner” after taking control after the death of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009.

Who is Abu Musab Al-barnawi?

Boko Haram’s former spokesperson, Abu Musab Al-barnawi, is the son of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. But, due to Shekau’s harsh techniques and severe stance on takfir, he later joined a sub-group of warriors, including top lieutenant Mamman Nur.

Abu Musab Al-barnawi founded a new faction called ISWAP in 2016. Daesh quickly recognized Al Barnawi as the region’s official head, accusing Shekau of being too brutal. Boko Haram and ISWAP have been arch-rivals ever then.

Even Shekau’s commanders were appalled by his ruthless tactics, which included the indiscriminate targeting of Muslim people and the use of female suicide bombers.

Also, the latest development follows a string of ISWAP assaults against military outposts and garrisons, as well as internal events such as the entrance of visitors and the reappearance of Abu Musab Al-barnawi as the group’s interim head.

In his determination, Abu Musab revealed that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) interim leader ordered them to attack Shekau for deviating and killing “believers.” ISWAP fighters then picked up guns, crossed the Sahara, and entered Shekau’s enclave, where they engaged in a gunfight with his loyalists.

Bunnaj Africa was able to gather that Shekau originally escaped and spent five days in the bushes of Sambisa, where he suffered greatly. ISWAP fighters, on the other hand, were able to track him down. Despite this, Shekau managed to flee a second time, according to Abu Musab but was later encountered.

The future of Boko Haram and ISWAP

With this latest development, ISWAP has now entirely taken over Boko Haram’s Sambisa camp, although it is unclear if it would be absorbed into the Timbuktu governorate, declared a new state under the terror group’s control, or perhaps become the new ISWAP operational headquarters.

The fear, however, is, ISWAP has gained in power and numbers since its establishment in 2016, with the support of international jihadi groups. In fact, analysts opine Shekau’s death, as well as a merger between JAS and ISWAP, will exacerbate the conflict in Northeast Nigeria. This is because combat between the factions has once decreased in intensity, and the two groups reportedly signed a ceasefire agreement, which included a deal for JAS to release the families of ISWAP commanders it had held since ISWAP split away.

However, on the other hand, their beliefs and doctrines seem to be different-colored liquids moving in a tunnel— thus, they might keep moving but it would be hard to mix up. And if mixed up, there would still (always) be conflict.

It is not rare for both factions to clash; following their separation five years ago, dozens of ISWAP militants were slain in one such combat in July 2016, near Chukungudu, Nigeria, on the shores of Lake Chad, according to a report published by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. ISWAP survived, smashing and absorbing several JAS subgroups.

The pressing questions now are: who will take over Shekau? And will any JAS (incoming) leader kowtow to ISWAP philosophy? Either way, if the death of Shekau deepens JAS’ factional disagreement, it will be a disastrous development for Boko Haram. However, if this results in the group’s reunification, it will be a great step in their mission— which might be bad for Nigeria. Although their feasibility is doubtful, the Nigerian security sector should never “loose-guard”.

Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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