Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has committed suicide in a fight against rival jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP), according to audio obtained from the group on Sunday.
It comes two weeks after reports came out that he had passed away.
His death marks a major shift in Nigeria’s 12-year jihadist insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people and displaced about two million people in the northeast.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau holds a weapon at an unknown location in Nigeria in this still image from an undated video obtained on January 15, 2018
Boko Haram has not yet officially commented on their leader’s death, while the Nigerian military said it is investigating the claim.
Shekau would rather be humiliated in the hereafter than to be humiliated on earth. He killed himself instantly by detonating an explosive device,” said a voice similar to ISWAP leader Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, in the Kanuri language.
The audio, which was undated, was given to AFP by the same source who relayed previous messages from the group.
ISWAP described in the audio how it sent fighters to Boko Haram’s enclave in the Sambisa Forest, that they found Shekau at his home and involved him in a firefight.
“From there he withdrew and escaped, ran and wandered through the bushes for five days. However, the hunters kept looking and hunting for him before they could locate him,” the voice said.
Leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau at an undisclosed location in Nigeria
After finding him in the bush, ISWAP fighters urged him and his followers to convert, the voice added, but Shekau refused and killed himself.
“We are so happy,” said the voice, describing Shekau as “the nation’s great troublemaker, persecutor and destructive leader.”
ISWAP split from Boko Haram in 2016, objecting to Shekau’s indiscriminate attacks on Muslim civilians and the use of female suicide bombers.
“This was someone who committed unimaginable terrorism and atrocities. How long has he been leading people astray? How many times has he destroyed and abused people?’ said the voice.
In the past two years, ISWAP emerged as the most dominant force in the region, carrying out large-scale attacks against the Nigerian military.
As the group now seeks to absorb Shekau’s fighters and territory, the Nigerian military may face a more unified jihadist force, analysts say.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks in front of guards at an undisclosed location in Nigeria in this still image from an undated video obtained on January 15, 2018
But ISWAP may also have trouble controlling or convincing Boko Haram factions loyal to Shekau outside Sambisa, especially in border areas.
“It may not be over yet,” a security source said. “ISWAP will have to subdue or convince these camps to merge (them) into its herd to fully consolidate its control.”
Jihadist infighting could present opportunities for the Nigerian military to seize.
But if ISWAP absorbed some of Shekau’s men and weapons, it could be in a position to close roads to and from Borno state capital Maiduguri, said Peccavi Consulting, a risk group specializing in Africa.
“If ISWAP convinces Shekau’s forces to join them, they will control the majority of enemy forces and be present in most unruled areas in the northeast,” the note reads.
Since 2019, the Nigerian military has withdrawn from villages and smaller bases to settle in so-called “super camps,” a strategy critics say allows jihadists to roam free in rural areas.
After the takeover of Sambisa, ISWAP sent messages to locals in the Lake Chad region saying they were welcome in the self-proclaimed “caliphate,” said Sallau Arzika, a fisherman from Baga.
Locals were chased from the islands in the lake after ISWAP accused them of spying for the military. Al-Barnawi said they could now return to fish and trade after paying taxes, with assurances that they would not be harmed, Arzika said.