Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has been seriously wounded after trying to kill himself to avoid capture during clashes with rival Islamic State-allied jihadists in the north of the country, two intelligence sources said on Thursday.
Shekau’s Boko Haram faction and fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) had been battling in northeastern Borno state, where ISWAP has become the dominant force in Nigeria’s more than decade-long jihadist insurgency.
Nigerian news sites and social media on Thursday were filled with rumours and unconfirmed reports about the death of the jihadist leader who made international headlines when his men kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014.
It was not the first time Shekau has been reported killed or seriously wounded. If confirmed, though, his loss could be a huge blow to a jihadist group already weakened by air strikes on its bases and defections of his fighters.
After a series of clashes, Shekau and some of his men were surrounded on Wednesday by ISWAP jihadists in Boko Haram’s Sambisa forest stronghold, where they demanded he surrender, one intelligence source said.
“To avoid capture, Shekau shot himself in the chest and the bullet pierced his shoulder,” the source said. “He was badly injured.”
Some fighters managed to escape with him to an unknown destination, the source added.
A second intelligence source said Shekau was critically wounded after detonating explosives in the house where he was holed up with his men.
“We are investigating,” Nigeria’s army spokesman Mohammed Yerima told AFP by text, asked about those reports.
– Jihadist splits –
More than 40,000 people have been killed and over two million displaced from their homes by the conflict in northeast Nigeria, and fighting has spread to parts of neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Boko Haram and ISWAP have fought battles for control of territory in the past after the original group splintered into the two rival factions in 2016.
ISWAP has emerged as the stronger more professional force, analysts say, carrying out complex attacks on the military and overrunning army bases.
Routing Shekau’s faction from its Sambisa forest stronghold would be a worrying advance for the IS jihadists who have bases in Nigeria’s Alagarno forest and around Lake Chad, with access to Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
“If ISWAP really controls Sambisa, Alagarno and the Lake, it can bear on all the main roads into Maiduguri,” said Vincent Foucher, a research fellow with the French National Centre for Science Research, referring to Borno state’s strategic capital city.
“Clearly, this is not good news for the armies of Nigeria and the other Lake Chad states.”
Shekau took over Boko Haram, formally known as the Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, after its founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody in 2009.
Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram turned large swathes of the northeast into no-go territory, proclaiming a “caliphate” in the Borno town of Gwoza in 2014.
An offensive since 2015 by Nigerian troops backed by soldiers from Cameroon, Chad and Niger drove jihadists from most of the area that they had once controlled.
After disagreements over Shekau’s indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians and use of women and children suicide bombers, Boko Haram eventually split into two rival factions in 2016.
ISWAP has since emerged as the more dominant militant faction with the backing of the Islamic State group. AFP