Few terrorists in Africa were as well known as Abubakar Shekau. The Boko Haram leader gained worldwide fame for abducting more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria in 2014 and for his appalling atrocities, including using minors as suicide bombers. Believed to be dead several times, this time seems to be the final one, paving the way for the consolidation of the Islamic State in the Lake Chad basin.
At the helm of Boko Haram since the death of founder Mohamed Yusuf in 2009, in 2015 he swore allegiance to the Islamic State, but its methods, which were too bloody even for the group then commanded by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, led to it that he was separated at the helm in August 2016 and thus completed the division of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) with Abu Musab al Barnawi, Yusuf’s son, at the helm.
The split was a blow to Shekau, which thinned its ranks to the detriment of the rival group that became the dominant group in the region, but Boko Haram with the Sambisa forest in the Nigerian state of Borno actively remained their main fiefdom and base of operations.
This is exactly where Shekau died. According to the Nigerian portal HumAngle, run by journalist Ahmad Salkida, known for his first-hand information about the uprisings in the region, the leader of Boko Haram committed suicide by standing himself with the explosive vest he was wearing refused to surrender to ISWA.
The news, which became known on May 20 and which many were reluctant to accept in view of Shekau’s miraculous “comeback” precedents in the past, was confirmed by ISWA over the weekend in an internal audio message to which it had access from its leader HumAngle .
Al Barnawi – only back in office a few weeks ago – stated that ISWA fighters had launched an offensive against the “infidels” of Shekau on the express orders of the new IS leader in Sambisa. He initially escaped, but was eventually located and arrested.
ISWA militiamen urged Shekau and his men to repent but, according to Al Barnawi, “he preferred to be humiliated in the afterlife rather than being humiliated on earth,” and went on to use the explosive vest he was wearing, to ignite that killed instantly. Al Barnawi then asked the men of Shekau to give up the fight, warning them that otherwise they would suffer the same fate as their leader.
Experts agree that the majority of the Boko Haram fighters will join the ranks of the ISWA. The control of the Sambisa forest is of particular strategic importance due to its location only 60 kilometers from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, the state in which the terrorist group and its focus of activity became known.
ISWA fighters will have “a new location” because this area “offers the best possible protection against air bombing by the Nigerian army compared to the area of Lake Chad, the terrain of which makes them more vulnerable,” Salkida emphasizes in an article.
“This will enable ISWA to provide another access point to threaten Maiduguri and to offer logistical routes to Cameroon and attack routes north of Adamawa,” agrees another of the north-eastern Nigerian states affected by the violence, Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram, in an article in Jamestown Foundation.
For his part, Alex Thruston, an expert on jihadism in Africa, admits in an article in the Lawfareblog that while ISWA is “a tremendous force and the death of Shekau could add to it”, its activities have “a cap”.
If his ambition led him to take Maiduguri, the Nigerian army would certainly mobilize to retake the city, he added, emphasizing that “the question is how far and how long ISWA can advance to upset the current tense equilibrium . “
The Islamic State subsidiary “might be smart enough not to expand too far or too quickly,” stresses Thruston, as it continues to influence millions of people, collect ‘taxes’ in rural areas, and “have a considerable amount of autonomy and Freedom of movement. “
This is where another important factor comes into play: Al Barnawi’s return to the ISWA leadership. Yusuf’s son had been removed from office in March 2019, in circumstances that ISWA had never resolved, but that would be related to his attempt to purge the most radical leaders.
His return came just days before the start of the offensive against Shekau in Sambisa and his victory over him will certainly “add to his credibility,” said Zenn.
In his view, the restoration of Al Barnawi, “who had a reputation for being lenient with civilians” when he controlled the group, “indicates that ISWA is seeking more civilian support in its main areas of operation in rural Borno, Yobe and north Adamawa becomes”. as well as in the Diffa area in Niger and in the border areas of Chad and Cameroon.
This new approach and its new shelters will allow the Islamic State “to continue recruiting and launching attacks in the coming months as the new leader consolidates his position and tries to rejoin the Shekau commanders with ISWA,” the expert predicts .
According to Ahmad Salkida, “a larger ISWA with more territory, with little resistance from a rival group like Boko Haram, along with the social services they provide in the areas they control, is much more dangerous to security forces and stability” . of the region as ISWA before the death of Abubakar Shekau.
In addition, the situation offers the group the opportunity to attract new fighters from Libya and some parts of the Sahel in search of a safe haven. In all of this, he predicts that ISWA will become “a formidable force that poses a greater threat to Lake Chad Basin countries”.
So far, repeated efforts by the Nigerian government to defeat Boko Haram and ISWA have failed, despite the fact that President Muhamaru Buhari had assured his success and the Nigerian armed forces were supported by neighboring countries, particularly Chad.
However, this country is in a process of transformation after the sudden death of its President Idriss Déby in April last year, although his son Mahamat Idriss Déby is currently at the helm.
Chad has already carried out a successful military campaign against Islamists in the area bathed by Lake Chad in 2020, but the country is also involved in the fight against FACT rebels – Deby died in clashes with this group – as well as against the jihadists operating in the Sahel, where it has a large contingent within the G-5 Sahel zone.
In the case of Cameroon, another country affected by ISWA, the government has also opened a conflict with the separatists of the two English-speaking regions of the country since 2017, while Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world and this year saw its first peaceful change of power, is standing it faced jihadists not only on the border with Nigeria, but also in the west on the border with Burkina Faso and Mali.