The commander in charge of ending Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency in northeastern Nigeria announced at the end of August that the country’s army expects to seize the militant group’s last few strongholds in the northeastern region over the next few weeks.
According to Major General Lucky Irabor, commander of the operation, the militant group is now holed up in a few pockets of the Sambisa forest and two areas located near Lake Chad, adding that they would be flushed out “within weeks.” Sambisa forest is where more than 200 schoolgirls, who were kidnapped from the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, are believed to be held. During an interview at his base in Maiduguri in Borno state, the birth place of the insurgency, Irabor disclosed that “almost all of the locations held by the Boko Haram terrorists have been reclaimed. We are talking only of a few villages and towns.” He further added that “there are joint operations. My commanders have an exchange with local commanders across the borders. Because of the collaborations we’ve had Boko Haram has been boxed in and in a few weeks you will hear good news.” He also disclosed that the militant group, who pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group last year, were still in control of Abadan and Malafatori, two towns located near Lake Chad. The army is now planing a new push into the Sambisa forest after abandoning an attempt due to torrential rain.
The Nigerian army missed a December 2015 deadline that was set up by President Muhammadu Buhari to wipe out the militant group, which wants to set up an Islamic caliphate in the area around Lake Chad. The army has however retaken most of the group’s territory, which at one point was the size of Belgium, with much of the success being due to better military cooperation with Nigeria’s neighbours, particularly Chad, whose forces have ben attacking Boko Haram fighters fleeing across the border. Despite loosing territory, Boko Haram manages to stage regular suicide bombings in Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Furthermore, since 2009, when the insurgency began, more than 15,000 people have been killed and a further 2.3 million have been displaced while the local economy has been decimated.
The move to retake the final areas of the northeastern region of the country comes after reports emerged that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, may have been wounded or even killed in a recent air strike in the region. While there have been conflicting reports of Shekau’s status, Irabor has disclosed that the leader had recently been wounded, backing off an Air Force statement released earlier this month that suggested that he had been killed in an airstrike. Irabor disclosed, “Shekau was wounded. That’s what I can confirm, but as to whether he is dead that I cannot at the moment confirm.” Boko Haram, which normally communicates via video or audio clips posted o the Internet, has so far stated nothing since the 24 August Air Force statement about Shekau sustaining injuries in the airstrike.
Doubts have emerged this week over the Nigerian military’s claims that the leader of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram may have been killed. Questions have been raised over the timing of the announcement, which came on the day that the Joint Task Force (JTF) concluded its work and handed over its duties to a newly created military division that has been charged with the battle to end Boko Haram’s four-year insurgency.
On Monday, a security task force in north-eastern Nigeria issued a statement indicating that Abubakar Shekau, who was declared a “global terrorist” by the United States, “may have died” from a gunshot wound after a clash with soldiers on Jun 30.” The statement further noted that “it is greatly believed that Shekau may have died between 25 July to 3 August 2013” after being taken over the border into Amitchide in neighboring Cameroon. The statement also indicated that an intelligence report suggests that Shekau was shot when soldiers raided a Boko Haram base at Sambisa Forest in north-eastern Nigeria.
However by Tuesday, local media reported that there had been increasing unease within the military pertaining to the claims. Task force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa declined to comment when contacted about the statement, indicating only that he had left Maiduguri, which is the epicentre of Boko Haram’s insurgency and where the force was based. National defence spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade has also distanced himself from the statement. Some sources have indicated that senior members within the military were unhappy with the release of the statement as there was not yet enough evidence to make such claims and that intelligence was still being analyzed.
Claims of Shekau’s death come one week after the Nigerian military stated that on 14 August, it had killed Boko Haram’s second-in-comment, Momodu Bama, also known by his alias “Abu Saad.” However so far, there have been confirmations relating to his death. In turn, a video message released on 12 August depicted a man who appeared to be Shekau, who insisted that he was in good health. He had also referred to attacks which had occurred in early August. The military statement released on Monday however has specified that the video was a fake. So far there have been no independent confirmations pertaining to this video.
Washington’s response to these latest claims have come with the US State Department stating that it had seen the reports pertaining to Shekau and that it was currently “working to ascertain the facts,” nothing that he had already been falsely reported dead in 2009. US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf added that “he is the most visible leader of Boko Haram, and if his death turns out to be true, the loss of such a central and well-known figure would set back Boko Haram’s operations and remove a key voice from its efforts to mobilize violent extremists in Nigeria and around the world.”
Shekau has been considered the leader of Boko Haram ever since the terrorist group’s founder Muhammad Yusuf, died in 2009 while in police custody. Since taking over, the terrorist group’s insurgency has seen a violent turn, with thousands being killed in attacks that have been carried out on school children, teachers the UN, the police, north-eastern traditional leaders, journalists, mobile phone towers and ordinary Nigerians going about their lives. In March of this year, the United States placed a US $7 million (5.3 million euro) bounty on his head. If these most recent claims of Abubakar Shekau’s death are confirmed, his passing will likely represent a significant moment in the future of the terrorist group, however it is unlikely that Boko Haram will end its violence in the northern regions of the Nigeria. Instead, this may fuel further retaliatory attacks that will likely target political and security officials along with military bases. Furthermore, the group has a number of factions, such as al-Qaeda-linked Ansaru, which has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of a number of Westerners. Such factions are believed to operate independently and any confirmations of Shekau’s death will likely result in retaliatory kidnappings and attacks that will be linked to his death.