The latest claim doing the rounds that the Nigerian military has killed key Boko Haram figure Abubakar Shekau has been met with a fair degree of scepticism, and understandably so. So far, no evidence beyond the claim has been presented, nor does it appear that any particular post-airstrike verification was undertaken. Indeed, the wording of the initial claim, to have “fatally wounded” Shekau, was later rephrased as merely “wounded“. Underlying much of the general disbelief that has met the announcement of Shekau’s death is a long history of such claims, dating right back to the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009. This is not to say that he might not have actually been killed or incapacitated this time, just that it would not be the first time such claims have been made.
Shekau’s death would be a major symbolic milestone in countering Boko Haram’s insurgency, especially considering his highly publicised international media presence in the aftermath of the Chibok kidnappings. Moreover, Shekau’s death might have actual, significant consequences for the strategic direction of the conflict, particularly in light of the recent public emergence of a rift between al-Qaeda and ISIS-aligned factions within the group. Boko Haram after Shekau, or under different leadership, could potentially be a very different beast.
So here’s a brief look back at some of the instances where Shekau has previously reportedly died, only to reappear:
July 2009: Police claimed that Shekau had been killed in the 2009 clampdown that saw ~1000 Boko Haram supporters killed, including the group’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf. Some reports suggest that Shekau had been shot in the leg, and subsequently went into hiding in Chad and Sudan. Another narrative suggests Shekau was held captive among other Boko Haram members, but was not recognised by Nigerian security forces and was subsequently released. Nigerian security forces have argued that the ‘real’ Abubakar Shekau was killed in 2009, and that the later Shekau seen in videos had claimed his name.
July 2010: Shekau re-appears in a video interview in July 2010, with a journalist who was taken to Shekau’s hideout in Maiduguri. Nigerian security forces claimed those images were digitally manipulated (presumably because they had assumed Shekau was dead)
And dies again
2011: Shekau is reported by media to have been killed by Nigerian security forces in Kano city (possibly arising from media reports that Shekau’s wife was arrested in Kano, which possibly involved a shootout involving Shekau himself)
21 Jan 2012: Shekau re-appears in a video, claiming responsibility for an attack on Kano.
Now he’s really dead
7 October 2012: Abubakar Shekau reportedly shot dead by JTF in Damaturu, Yobe state, along with 30 Boko Haram fighters in what is described as an ambush.
… Or injured?
January 2013: Nigerian security forces claim Shekau was injured (possibly in reference to the fighting in Damaturu) and had fled to Gao, in Mali, to receive treatment.
June~August 2013: Nigerian military claims Shekau died between 25 July and 3 August in Amchide, Cameroon, after being severely wounded. Military further claiming that a video of Shekau, released on 13 August, was “dramatised by an imposter to hoodwink the sect members to continue with the terrorism”. Media later presents an extended narrative of a wounded Shekau dying in Cameroon in June 2013. “(H)e was said to have been taken to Mali for treatment by the Boko Haram top hierarchy … (i)n Mali, Shekau’s situation soon grew worse. After consultations … (they) decided to move their boss to Cameroun”.
25 September 2013: Shekau re-appears in a video where he makes reference to recent events. Shekau is recognisable in the video, which reached media from a source previously used by Boko Haram.
Now he’s dead. Promise
17 September 2014: The Nigerian Army claims to have killed Shekau in Konduga, Borno State on September 17. Military debates if ‘Shekau’ was Isa Damsaka or Bashir Mohammed, since both men are claimed to have been posing as Shekau since June 2013.
So very dead
~23 September 2014: Cameroon military releases imagery of man they claim is Shekau, killed in a combined airstrike and ground raid at Ngala, inside Nigeria. Nigerian military denies kill claim, and that the raids even took place: “there was no raid whatsoever in any part of Nigeria’s territory in pursuit of terrorists … All operations on-going in the environs of Konduga and all associated border locations within the country are completely being undertaken by Nigerian troops.”
~2 October 2014: Shekau dismisses claims of his death in a video obtained by the AFP news agency. The 36-minute video shows Shekau, firing a machine gun mounted on the back of a truck, into the air.
How about now?
March to August 2015: Shekau goes silent as a multinational intervention appears to inflict several significant defeats on Boko Haram, driving militants into hiding in Sambisa Forest. Speculation begins again that Shekau may be dead or incapacitated, or has been removed from the group leadership. Chadian President Idriss Deby makes claims to the effect that Shekau has been neutralised.
16 August 2015: An audio clip is released to media in which Shekau responds directly to Chadian President Deby, refuting claims that he (Shekau) has been killed, incapacitated, or replaced.
So maybe this time?
23 August 2016: Nigerian Airforce claims to have killed or at least injured Shekau in an airstrike in Taye Village, Sambisa Forest, Borno State.