Nigerian Terrorist Leader ‘Dies’ Again. Was This the End of His 9th Life?

When reports began to emerge on Wednesday night that the murderous leader of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram was dead, many Nigerians dismissed them immediately.

Over the years, the Nigerian military had announced the killing of that leader, Abubakar Shekau, several times before. And then he would show up online weeks later, taunting his supposed killers in video diatribes.

“If you have killed us, why are we still alive?” he asked in 2018, after the Nigerian military claimed to have “broken the heart and the soul” of Boko Haram, a group that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.

But this time feels different. It wasn’t the military announcing they had killed him. In fact, for hours on Wednesday night and on Thursday, the military was silent.

Nor was his killing claimed in some slick video produced by Islamic State West Africa Province, the rival extremist group sometimes known as ISWAP that splintered off from his command five years ago.

Instead, reports gradually made their way to and then around Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, by word of mouth. Then they trickled out to the world. The man who held the region in his violent grip for close to a decade was maybe gone for real this time.

Mr. Shekau was best known for the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok Girls, 276 schoolgirls who were abducted from their dormitories at night and who Mr. Shekau later vowed he would “sell in the market.”

Most of the Chibok Girls were released, but over 100 are missing or remain in captivity, along with many other less famous, but often even younger victims.

Mr. Shekau’s brutality extended much further, however. He favored suicide bombings, and often sent women or young girls strapped with explosives to be human bombs, against their will or tricked into doing it.

He targeted civilians, including fellow Muslims, as he considered anyone not loyal to Boko Haram to be a legitimate target. These tactics were considered too extreme even by ISIS central, to whom Mr. Shekau initially pledged allegiance, but who then supported his rivals in ISWAP.

The reports that trickled out on Thursday held that Mr. Shekau, besieged by ISWAP fighters in his forest stronghold and realizing that they wanted to take him alive, detonated a suicide vest, blowing himself up.

This was the version heard by Bunu Bukar, secretary of the Hunters’ Association in Borno State, who has played a key role in demobilizing Boko Haram fighters and is in contact with past and present members of the group. He said that 200 heavily armed ISWAP members descended on Mr. Shekau’s hide-out in Sambisa forest.

“When Shekau discovered that these people are very powerful and he also realized that it’s not Nigerian army, it’s ISWAP — he just planned to use explosive devices,” Mr. Bukar said. “He wore them all and confronted them directly. When the explosion came, Shekau was in pieces. And they also lost at least 40 fighters — ISWAP fighters.”

One of the people Mr. Bukar heard it from was Ibrahim Mustafa, who fought alongside Mr. Shekau for seven years.

And in turn Mr. Mustafa heard it from fellow ex-fighters, who heard it from their former colleagues who were still in Sambisa, still members of Boko Haram. But there is little cellphone reception to be had in Sambisa, so to give their friends in the city news, fighters on the ground had to go to a particular spot. And so the updates have been halting.

For some time, ISWAP fighters were on a mission to take Mr. Shekau’s stronghold, according to Mr. Mustafa.

“They fought and conquered all the villages up to Sambisa,” he said.

A similar version was contained in a message circulated among members of the Nigerian military on Thursday, and seen by The New York Times.

And yet many remained skeptical. The often well-informed posted cryptic statements on Twitter, not naming names.

“An age of brutality by one person likely ended,” wrote Ahmad Salkida, the Nigerian journalist often credited with — and sometimes criticized for — having stellar sources inside Boko Haram.

In Maiduguri, people gathered in small groups to talk about the news, but most assigned it no greater status than another rumor. Likely a false alarm.

At a gas station on Thursday morning, one woman cautiously rejoiced as she heard the news. If it was true, she would give alms to the poor, she said.

But there were no big celebrations, yet.

Ibrahim Hamza still vividly remembers encountering Mr. Shekau at a busy square in Maiduguri in 2000. Mr. Hamza had come to play soccer; Mr. Shekau for tilawa, or memorization of the Quran. They did not know each other then, but Mr. Shekau gave Mr. Hamza a hard shove for no apparent reason, and told him he would teach him a lesson.

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But Mr. Shekau and his group would have an indelible effect on Mr. Hamza, who had to flee Maiduguri for two years, and his family.

“I lost a brother, a cousin and an uncle killed by Boko Haram,” he said. “Thousands of innocent people killed or displaced, especially women and children. How can God forgive such a heartless person?”

For many, particularly those connected with the country’s armed forces, if Mr. Shekau was dead, it was not necessarily a positive development overall. It could mean that ISWAP, already powerful, posed much more of a threat to Maiduguri and other garrison cities, some said.

If it really happened, “Shekau’s death is not an end to Boko Haram. It is only the beginning of another chapter in the group,” said Audu Bulama Bukarti, an expert on extremist groups in Africa at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Warfare between the factions has killed hundreds of their members previously, he said, and if that continued, they would be weakened.

“It will be two violent groups eating up themselves and that will be positive news for Nigeria,” he said. On the other hand, if the two factions teamed up, he said: “It will open an even deadlier chapter for security forces.”

It would also make it harder to win the battle of ideas, he said, as ISWAP tends to be more benign to civilians.

“Where Shekau alienated civilians with his capricious and often massive and violent seizures of cattle and grain, ISWAP has substituted a fairer, cash-based taxation of trade and agricultural production,” wrote the analyst Vincent Foucher in a recent report for the International Crisis Group.

Those who have suffered at Mr. Shekau’s hands almost hoped he had not been killed in the way it was reported on Thursday, feeling it was too easy a way out for him.

“I would have wished that he was caught alive, released to the military authorities and taken round the city of Maiduguri,” Mr. Hamza said. “We would surely have skinned him alive.”

Usman Alkali contributed reporting.

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