Abubakar Shekau

Abubakar Shekau is the emir of Boko Haram and a U.S.-designated terrorist.“Terrorist Designations of Boko Haram Commander Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar,” United States Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, June 21, 2012, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/266615.htm. The Nigerian terror group pledged allegiance to ISIS under Shekau in March 2015.Agence France-Presse, “IS welcomes Boko Haram allegiance: tape,” Yahoo News, March 12, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/accepts-allegiance-nigeria-jihadists-boko-haram-201513146.html. On August 3, 2016, ISIS announced that militant Abu Musab al-Barnawi had assumed leadership of Boko Haram.“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711. Later that day, Shekau released an audio statement denying ISIS’s claim, and referred to the announcement as a coup.Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Doomed Marriage to the Islamic State,” War on the Rocks, August 26, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/08/boko-harams-doomed-marriage-to-the-islamic-state/; Maggie Fick, “Boko Haram dispute with Isis bursts into the open,” Financial Times, August 5, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/bed19ac2-5a61-11e6-8d05-4eaa66292c32. Following the announcement, the group split into two factions— a Shekau-led Boko Haram and a Barnawi-headed Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). Shekau has not renounced his pledge to ISIS and in March 2017 began including ISIS logos in official Boko Haram videos.Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Fractional Dynamics within Boko Haram,” Institute for Security Studies,” July 2018, p. 15, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/2018-07-06-research-report-2.pdf.

Shekau was reportedly born in a remote village in Yobe State, Nigeria.Adam Nossiter, “A Jihadist’s Face Taunts Nigeria From the Shadows,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/world/africa/a-jihadists-face-taunts-nigeria-from-the-shadows.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A16%22%7D; Emeka Okereke, "From Obscurity to Global Visibility: Periscoping Abubakar Shekau," Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 6, no. 10 (2014): 17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351292. As a young boy he studied the Quran at an Islamic school in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno State.Emeka Okereke, "From Obscurity to Global Visibility: Periscoping Abubakar Shekau," Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 6, no. 10 (2014): 17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351292. After 11 years of study, Shekau was reportedly expelled due to his militant and aggressive behavior.Adam Nossiter, “A Jihadist’s Face Taunts Nigeria From the Shadows,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/world/africa/a-jihadists-face-taunts-nigeria-from-the-shadows.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A16%22%7D; Max Siollun, “Boko Haram’s Terrorist Behind the Curtain,” Foreign Policy, April 26, 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/26/mystery-swirls-around-a-most-dangerous-terrorist-nigeria-boko-haram/. He continued his Islamic studies and earned a degree from the Borno State College of Legal and Islamic Studies in 2004.“Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” International Crisis Group, April 3, 2014, p. 19,  https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/curbing-violence-in-nigeria-II-the-boko-haram-insurgency.pdf; Emeka Okereke, "From Obscurity to Global Visibility: Periscoping Abubakar Shekau," Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 6, no. 10 (2014): 17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351292. Shekau subsequently worked with Mohammed Yusuf, an Islamic preacher who went on to found and lead Boko Haram. Shekau shared Yusuf’s commitment to restructuring society in accordance with sharia law and was named as his successor after Yusuf was killed by Nigerian security forces in July 2009.Emeka Okereke, "From Obscurity to Global Visibility: Periscoping Abubakar Shekau," Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 6, no. 10 (2014): 18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351292; Adam Nossiter, “A Jihadist’s Face Taunts Nigeria From the Shadows,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/world/africa/a-jihadists-face-taunts-nigeria-from-the-shadows.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A16%22%7D.

Shekau has transformed Boko Haram into a more radical and violent organization.“Nigeria's Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in profile,” BBC News, May 9, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18020349. Under Shekau’s leadership, the terror group routinely abducts, enslaves, and rapes civilians, and has reportedly killed more than 15,000 people.Ruth Maclean and Isaac Abrak, “Isis tries to impose new leader on Boko Haram in Nigeria,” Guardian (London), August 5, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/05/isis-tries-to-impose-new-leader-on-boko-haram-in-nigeria; Phil Stewart, “Boko Haram fracturing over Islamic State ties, U.S. general warns,” Reuters, June 22, 2016, accessed August 9, 2018, https://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKCN0Z80K6. Boko Haram received widespread media attention in April 2014 when the group kidnapped more than 200 school girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria.“Chibok abductions in Nigeria: ‘More than 230 seized,’” BBC News, April 21, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27101714. One month later, Shekau appeared in a Boko Haram video in which he declared his intention to sell the school girls into slavery.“Nigeria's Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in profile,” BBC News, May 9, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18020349; Aminu Abubakar and Josh Levs, “'I will sell them,' Boko Haram leader says of kidnapped Nigerian girls,” CNN, May 6, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/05/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/.

In August 2015, the Chadian government claimed Shekau had been replaced as Boko Haram’s leader by an individual named Mahamat Daoud.“Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants ‘have new leader,’” BBC News, August 12, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33889378; Rick Gladstone, “Nigeria: Boko Haram Is Said To Have A New Leader,” New York Times, August 12, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/13/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-is-said-to-have-a-new-leader.html. Shortly thereafter, Shekau released an audio recording in which he contradicted the government’s claim and asserted that the group’s leadership had not changed.“Shekau ‘still in charge’ of Nigeria’s Boko Haram,” BBC News, August 16, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33952928. In the following seven months, there was no video footage of Shekau which prompted speculation that Shekau had been killed. Shekau quelled that rumor when he appeared in a Boko Haram video in March 2016.Ludovica Iaccino, “Nigeria: Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appears in new video after months of silence,” International Business Times, March 24, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/nigeria-boko-haram-leader-abubakar-shekau-appears-new-video-after-months-silence-1551438. It is possible that Boko Haram has intentionally manufactured at least some of the confusion surrounding the group and its leader for strategic purposes. According to a Reuters report, it is likely that Shekau has a number of body doubles and that other Boko Haram commanders are operating under Shekau’s name.Tim Cocks, “Boko Haram ‘leader’ killed repeatedly, continues to threaten Nigeria,” Reuters, September 26, 2014, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/26/uk-nigeria-bokoharam-idUKKCN0HL0BL20140926.

Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS in March 2015 caused tension within Boko Haram’s ranks.“Hearing to Consider the Nominations of: Lieutenant General Thomas D. Waldhauser, USMC, to be General and Commander, United States Africa Command; and Lieutenant General Joseph L. Lengyel, Ang, to be General and Chief of the National Guard Bureau,” Committee on Armed Services, June 21, 2016, 64-65, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/16-62_06-21-16.pdf. According to U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Shekau did not obey ISIS’s orders to stop attacking fellow Muslims, and to cease using children as suicide bombers.“Hearing to Consider the Nominations of: Lieutenant General Thomas D. Waldhauser, USMC, to be General and Commander, United States Africa Command; and Lieutenant General Joseph L. Lengyel, Ang, to be General and Chief of the National Guard Bureau,” Committee on Armed Services, June 21, 2016, 64-65, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/16-62_06-21-16.pdf. In early August 2016, Boko Haram’s third-in-command Mamman Nur allegedly reported Shekau to ISIS leadership for “killing [Shekau’s] own members, particularly commanders…just because they [question] his attacks on mosques and markets.”Ruth Maclean and Isaac Abrak, “Isis tries to impose new leader on Boko Haram in Nigeria,” Guardian (London), August 5, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/05/isis-tries-to-impose-new-leader-on-boko-haram-in-nigeria. After ISIS named Barnawi the new Boko Haram leader in early August 2016, Barnawi claimed that the group would cease attacks on mosques and markets and would instead focus on targeting churches and murdering Christians.“قطـع طريـق إمـداد الرافضـة إلـى معسـكر القيارة,” al-Naba, August 2, 2016, 8, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/the-islamic-state-e2809cal-nabacc84_-newsletter-4122.pdf; Ludovica Iaccino, “Boko Haram splits as Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi fight for leadership,” International Business Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-splits-abubakar-shekau-abu-musab-al-barnawi-fight-leadership-1574271.

On August 23, 2016, the Nigerian military announced that Shekau had been “fatally wounded” by an August 19 airstrike in Borno State.Adam Withnall, “Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau ‘fatally wounded in army air strike’,” Independent (London), August 23, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/boko-haram-leader-abubakar-shekau-fatally-wounded-in-nigerian-army-air-strike-a7204676.html; “Boko Haram crisis: Nigeria air strike ‘kills commanders’,” BBC News, August 23, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37163949. Though media outlets initially took the announcement to mean that Shekau had been killed in the airstrike,Nigerian Army, Twitter post, August 22, 2016, 11:07 p.m., https://twitter.com/HQNigerianArmy/status/767921120754491392; Adam Withnall, “Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau ‘fatally wounded in army air strike’,” Independent (London), August 23, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/boko-haram-leader-abubakar-shekau-fatally-wounded-in-nigerian-army-air-strike-a7204676.html; “Boko Haram crisis: Nigeria air strike ‘kills commanders’,” BBC News, August 23, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37163949. military spokesman Colonel Sani Usman later clarified that Shekau had merely been injured.Dionne Searcey, “Boko Haram Leader Is Wounded in Airstrike, Nigeria’s Military Says,” New York Times, August 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/world/africa/boko-haram-abubakar-shekau-airstrike.html. Shekau has since appeared in a number of videos and has reportedly continued to direct attacks against Muslim civilians.Chijioke Jannah, “Shekau reportedly ill, reveals why Boko Haram is losing ground against Nigerian govt,” Daily Post, July 25, 2018, http://dailypost.ng/2018/07/25/shekau-reportedly-ill-reveals-boko-haram-losing-grounds-nigerian-govt-video/; Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Christian Ani, “Fractional Dynamics within Boko Haram,” Institute for Security Studies,” July 2018, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/2018-07-06-research-report-2.pdf.

Despite repeated claims from the Nigerian government and military that Shekau had been killed, on June 29, 2017, Shekau released a new video declaring that there is no room for Christians to live with Muslims in the country as equals.Stoyan Zaimov, “Boko Haram Leader Resurfaces in Video, Says There Is No Room for Christians,” Christian Post, June 29, 2017, https://www.christianpost.com/news/boko-haram-leader-resurfaces-in-video-says-there-is-no-room-for-christians.html. A few months later on January 2, 2018, Shekau released a video message claiming responsibility for a number of attacks in northeast Nigeria, including Maiduguri, Gamboru, and Damboa. The attacks occurred during the Christmas season, often targeting convoys of Nigerian soldiers and crowded markets across northeast Nigeria.“Shekau appears in video amid surge in Boko Haram attacks,” Gulf Times, January 2, 2018, https://www.gulf-times.com/story/576826/Shekau-appears-in-video-amid-surge-in-Boko-Haram-a.

On February 15, 2018, the Nigerian army offered a three million Naira reward for information leading to the capture of Shekau.Tonye Bakare, “Nigerian Army places N3m bounty on Abubakar Shekau,” Guardian (Nigeria), February 15, 2018, https://guardian.ng/news/nigerian-army-places-n3m-bounty-on-abubakar-shekau/. On March 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program, offered a $7 million reward for information leading to the capture of Shekau.“Wanted Information that brings to justice…Abubakr Shekau,” U.S. Department of State, March 3, 2020, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/abubakar_shekau.html.

On December 11, 2020, approximately 300 boys were kidnapped from their school in Kankara, Katsina state in northeast Nigeria. Two days later, Shekau released an audio clip in which he claimed responsibility for the attack.Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Pan-Nigerian Affiliate System after the Kankara Kidnapping: A Microcosm of Islamic State’s ‘External Provinces,’” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 19, no. 1, January 15, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/boko-harams-pan-nigerian-affiliate-system-after-the-kankara-kidnapping-a-microcosm-of-islamic-states-external-provinces/. A video later showed one of the boys stating that they were held by “the gang of Abu Shekau.”Nigeria School Attack: Hundreds of Boys Return Home After Kidnap Ordeal,” BBC News, December 18, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55364394. On December 17, Shekau again claimed responsibility for the kidnapping in a video posted to Telegram.Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Pan-Nigerian Affiliate System after the Kankara Kidnapping: A Microcosm of Islamic State’s ‘External Provinces,’” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 19, no. 1, January 15, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/boko-harams-pan-nigerian-affiliate-system-after-the-kankara-kidnapping-a-microcosm-of-islamic-states-external-provinces/. However, analysts believe that the actual kidnappers were likely outside of Shekau’s direct chain of command and were merely bandits who pledged loyalty to Boko Haram.Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Pan-Nigerian Affiliate System after the Kankara Kidnapping: A Microcosm of Islamic State’s ‘External Provinces,’” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 19, no. 1, January 15, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/boko-harams-pan-nigerian-affiliate-system-after-the-kankara-kidnapping-a-microcosm-of-islamic-states-external-provinces/.

 
United States

The State Department designated Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi, and Abubakar Adam Kambar as Specially Designated Global Terrorists on June 21, 2012.“Terrorist Designations of Boko Haram Commander Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar,” U.S. Department of State, June 21, 2012, accessed July 11, 2014, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/06/193574.htm.

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