Understanding a Phantom’s Death

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                                                                                                             Ibrahim Shekau

For a man who has reportedly died 5 times, the announcement of his death on 20 May 2021 is unsurprising.

The death of a ghost, recognisable only by provocative jihadist literature, videos, and even tall tales throughout Africa and beyond, took the form of what M. D. W. Jeffreys defines as “suicide of revenge” in his book “Samsonic suicide or suicide of revenge among Africans.”

The concept of self-annihilatory suicidal behaviour arose as a result of a challenge to a position of leadership. Abu Mohammed Abubakar bin Mohammad al-Sheikawi (Abubakar Shekau) had selected death over capitulation, thus the decision to commit suicide rather than appeal to Abu Mus’ab Habeeb Bin Muhammad Bin Yusuf al-Barnawi.

Al-Barnawi is the oldest living son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, as well as the new provisional representative of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

According to Muhammad Munir, an Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University of Islamabad’s Department of Law, ” a suicide bomber might be committing at least five crimes according to Islamic law, namely killing civilians, mutilating their bodies, violating the trust of enemy soldiers and civilians, committing suicide and destroying civilian objects or properties.” He examined this from the standpoint of Islamic jus in Bello (rules concerning the conduct of war).

ISWAP split from the Shekau-led Boko Haram Group, also known as the Jam’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah Wa’l-Jihad (JAS), in 2016 after swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The split comes in response to critiques of Shekau’s leadership style, which has been described as a non-articulate dictatorial figure egomaniacal, and arrogant.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group in Brussels, ISWAP felt threatened enough by Shekau’s jabs to issue a 120-page treatise in June 2018, the longest published correspondence ever and the first overt indictment of Shekau.

Tomasz Rolbiecki an Independent open-source analyst focused on the geography of terrorism, primarily Lake Chad, clearly states that “With Al-Barnawi back in charge, the two strong-willed players were unable to find an agreement, which is why Shekau was replaced with him in the first place, and why a paper about Shekau after the break was titled ‘Cutting off the Tumor’.”

Several sources say that Shekau was killed or seriously injured after detonating explosives in his house to avoid capture by ISWAP fighters after an hours-long deliberation. Overt sources went into a panic on the eve of 19 May 2021, with little evidence including no precise location or pictorial evidence of the attack, which was rumoured to have happened near the Timbuktu Triangle.

Islamic State propaganda media outlets, in the likes of Dabiq magazine, Amaq News Agency, and Al-Naba, have also failed to corroborate reports about Shekau’s death. The paper made no mention of Shekau’s death in its official weekly issue on 20 May 2021 but did report an Improvised explosive device (IED) attack carried out by ISWAP in Lake Chad, in Bosso on Tuesday, 18 May 2021.

Given Shekau’s inability to declare his loyalty to ISWAP before his “death”, the growing incursion into Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest region by ISWAP fighters highlights the repression of JAS across the North-East. This means an exponential growth in ISWAP’s fighting power, while also the retreat of some of his supporters to the northwest and north-central Nigeria.

Figure 1: Increasing growth in ISWAP attacks since 2018 through 2020 illustrates the period through which strategic positioning secured the groups dominance in the region leading to its manifestation in 2021.

In particular, the pioneering of the Sambisa forest by ISWAP seeks to provide increased security and more space for fighters, who were previously fighting mainly in the wetlands around Lake Chad, the hills of Mandara on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon, and the forest areas between Borno and Yobe. The occupation of Sanbisa could add a new dimension to the ongoing insurgency, with its strategic location serving as a starting point for attacks on military bases and garrisons.

Figure 2: The map highlights the increase in ISWAP occupation and its increasing influence across towns and villages in Borno State, as well as Yobe and Adamawa.

Nonetheless, ISWAP’s long-fought guerrilla warfare could give way to conventional warfare and the defence of captured towns against state forces. Most notably, ISWAP could now fully encircle Maiduguri by taking hold of access paths to the city. A JAS-ISWAP accord will certainly exacerbate a currently raging rebellion in Nigeria’s North-Eastern regions This means a new field for combatants to recruit in, new villages to battle and conquer, and most importantly, ISWAP will fully be able to accommodate its attacks on hard targets.

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