June 16, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 287

Security Concerns In Nigeria Follow Death Of Boko Haram Leader Abubakar Shekau

June 16, 2021 | By Ali Karami*
Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 287

Death has been hovering around Abubakar Shekau since his ascension to power as leader of Boko Haram in 2009, after the death of its founder Mohammed Yusuf. The Boko Haram leader has been declared dead no fewer than five times by Nigerian military authorities. However, he never stayed dead; he always reappeared in videos. Nevertheless, in May it was reported once again that Shekau had died. Authorities have not yet found his body, but this time the news lent more credence.

Abubakar Shekau (Source: Twitter)

Shekau's Death And ISWAP

In 2016, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), led by Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, split off from Boko Haram over ideological differences, and ISIS backed this group. ISWAP claims to be more interested in dealing with central powers and putting an end to unnecessary killings of Muslims, which was a hallmark of Boko Haram activity. The South African think tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS) mentioned that "the indiscriminate targeting of civilians was a major point of disagreement contributing to Boko Haram's split into two factions in 2016. Since then, ISWAP has sought to distinguish itself strategically and operationally from the Abubakar Shekau-led Jama'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihad [better known as Boko Haram]."[1]

Abu Musab Al-Barnawi (Source: YouTube)

At first, ISWAP and Boko Haram coexisted. However, on February 19, 2021, Issue No. 17 of the Thabat weekly newsletter published by the pro-Al-Qaeda Thabat News Agency reported violent clashes between ISWAP and Boko Haram, which had severed its ties with the Islamic State (ISIS) in Nigeria.[2]

Quoting "local reports," the Thabat newsletter stated that "violent battles" had broken out between ISWAP and Boko Haram, after ISWAP abducted 13 women, claiming that their husbands belonged to Boko Haram. In response, Boko Haram attacked "headquarters and camps" belonging to ISWAP in Sunawa village, on the border between Nigeria and Niger, seizing control of the area and killing dozens of ISWAP fighters. Thabat added that according to local sources Boko Haram did not succeed in freeing the abducted women, and six Muslims who did not belong to either group were killed in the clashes.

It is worth mentioning that the Thabat article reminded readers that the Boko Haram "gang" headed by Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, and that – despite being aware of Boko Haram's "error and criminality" – ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani accepted the group's bay'ah (oath of allegiance) and ISIS members in Iraq and Syria celebrated the addition of a new group to the ISIS franchise.[3] Boko Haram subsequently broke with ISIS and began to "launch military campaigns against members of the organization and all those connected to it."[6]

Then, in May 2021, after the month of Ramadan, ISWAP began a move into the Sambisa Forest, in Borno State, northeast Nigeria, which had been the longtime base of Boko Haram, to avoid military airstrikes amongst its mountainous terrain. During that time, Issue 287 of the Islamic State (ISIS) weekly magazine Al-Naba', published on May 20, 2021, reported that Shekau was dead after "engaging in an hours-long meeting with ISWAP fighters." ISWAP reportedly asked him to relinquish power and to order his fighters in other areas to declare allegiance to it, but he refused and "eventually blew himself up."[5]

There are, however, two accounts concerning Shekau's death. According to one, Shekau used a suicide belt when he was surrounded and did not want to be captured. According to the other, Shekau shot himself in the chest and the bullet pierced his shoulder, fatally wounding him.[6] Despite the discrepancies in the accounts, the absence of any recent videos seems to prove that the reports of his death are to be taken seriously.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that on June 7, 2021, Reuters reported that Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, leader of ISWAP, reconfirmed in an audio recording that Shekau had died around May 18, after detonating an explosive device while being pursued by ISWAP fighters. "Shekau preferred to be humiliated in the afterlife than being humiliated on earth, and he killed himself instantly by detonating an explosive," Al-Barnawi can be heard saying.[7] It should also be noted that although Al-Barnawi's reported recording provides tangible proof that ISWAP was behind his death, ISIS has not yet released an official statement about it.[8]

Administrative map of Nigeria (Source:

Security Concerns Arising From Shekau's Death

The death of Abubakar Shekau is not all good news, though. The military force of Boko Haram might be weakened, but ISWAP is proving to be a more significant threat and is spreading its tentacles even further. Moreover, the group's association with ISIS makes it an even greater threat than Boko Haram, with a presence not only in Nigeria, but also all across the Sahel region.

Sahel region (Source:

Furthermore, commenting on the consequences of Shekau's death, Nigerian security expert Kabiru Adamu said, in the Nigerian media outlet This Day Live: "If it turns out that [Shekau] has been killed, his top commanders who are still alive will have a choice of either joining the group that killed him – ISWAP – or breaking out and forming their own group. If that happens, it is likely [that] we [will] see the proliferation of smaller groups as against the former single one." Adamu also held that penetrating the Sambisa forest was ISWAP's long-term mission towards establishing a caliphate in the Lake Chad Basin. "Irrespective of whether he was killed or not, what is obvious as a group [is that] ISWAP is growing in strength, and we all know that ISWAP is affiliated with the global jihadist terror group called Islamic State (ISIS), and we have seen what ISIS has done in Syria and Iraq," Adamu observed.[9]

Lake Chad Basin (Source:

The Nigerian Army

The Nigerian Army seems to be sitting ducks, as people believe it to be corrupt and incompetent. Even if it was by his own hand, Shekau's death in a clash with a rival enemy attack does not boost confidence in the military. Moreover, the Nigerian military has failed to reclaim the Sambisa forest despite years of combating the forces there. If ISWAP can take it over, confidence in the security forces will dip even further.

The Nigerian media outlet The Punch reported that the Nigerian human rights activist Aisha Yesufu said that it is "shameful" that for years the Nigerian Army failed to capture Shekau, "despite spending millions of dollars for the purchase of arms in the anti-terror war in North-East Nigeria." Yesufu added that ISWAP's capture of Shekau showed that the Nigerian military had failed to do its job throughout long the years.

Yesufu said: "What this means is that our military has not been fighting the war. The same Shekau that they claim to be fighting in the same Sambisa Forest is the same place we found out that an opponent terror group came out to say that they have taken over the place and he [Shekau] is dead. What has the military and the commander-in-chief been doing all this while? Joking with them [i.e. the terrorists] at the expense of the lives of Nigerians who are being killed? These are questions Nigerians should be asking. If Sambisa Forest can be taken and Shekau killed and yet our military have been on the fight for many years now and they have not been able to achieve this despite spending millions of dollars, it is something that should worry all of us. The more we leave the fight in the hands of people who are incapable of handling this war, the more we are victims."[10]

The Nigerian media outlet Vanguard also commented that "now the fear of ISWAP is the beginning of wisdom, as the splinter group appears to be more dangerous by increasing the spate of the abduction/kidnapping of innocent civilians as well as the killing of security forces in their formations [that is] being witnessed recently."

ISWAP (Source:

However, Vanguard then reported the words of veteran journalist Mohammed Bashir, who stated that both Boko Haram and ISWAP are now weaker after the battle, and that the Nigerian army should take advantage of this situation. Bashir opined: "This is the right time for the Nigerian security forces to put an end to insurgency in Nigeria by going all out to get rid of the insurgents... There is no time for complacency or time wasting, because the opportunity has arisen to capitalize on the weaknesses of the insurgents by launching an all-out attack on all their formations. It is either now or never, because it is very clear that both evil parties are wounded, [and have] lost equipment and machinery to withstand any assault, which clearly makes them vulnerable."[11]


On June 14, 2021, the Nigerian Army urged the remaining Boko Haram terrorists to "surrender" and "embrace peace." Nigerian Brig.-Gen. A.A. Eyitayo said that he needed the remnants of the insurgents to press for amnesty. "Some of them [i.e. Boko Haram members] are listening to the media, so it is good for us to appeal to them, through the media, to shun violence [and to] turn up to seek forgiveness and reconciliation," Eyitayo stated.[xii] It seems clear that Nigeria is offering "forgiveness and reconciliation" to Boko Haram terrorists in order to prevent them from joining ISWAP, which is now battling to absorb Shekau's fighters and territory in northeast Nigeria.

The army should exploit any vulnerability in the movement, also in order to regain the Nigerian people's trust. The time to act has long passed, and shouldn't be delayed any longer. ISWAP is a green snake whose head needs to be quickly cut off.


*Ali Karami is a MEMRI researcher and a political commentator from Jigawa state, Nigeria.



[2], February 19, 2021.

[5], May 20, 2021.

[6], May 20, 2021.

[7], June 7, 2021.

[9], May 23, 2021.

[10], May 21, 2021.

[11], May 22, 2021.

[12], June 14, 2021.

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