Is Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau dead or alive? Does it matter?

The shadowy insurgent Nigerian group is remarkably resilient and doesn't rely on one paramount leader.

AP/File
In this photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, May 12, 2014 shows their leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

With his gruesome videos and fierce rhetoric, Abubakar Shekau is the public face of Boko Haram -- the Islamist insurrection against the Nigerian secular state centered in northeast Nigeria, in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states.

However, there is actually little hard intelligence on the internal dynamics of Boko Haram’s leadership.

The Nigerian security forces claimed to have killed Mr.Shekau in 2009. This was supposedly done at the same time these forces extra-judicially executed the Boko Haram movement’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

No outsider has seen Shekau since that time. Subsequently, there have been regular reports that the security services have killed him. Each time, however, ‘Shekau’ has issued a video in order to prove he is still alive.

Yet the ‘Shekau’ figure in some of the videos looks different from others. Accordingly, there are numerous conspiracy theories involving Skekau’s alleged doubles.

On Sept. 21, the Cameroonian authorities claimed that they had killed Shekau in a shoot-out, and they released a photograph of a corpse with some resemblance to Shekau.

But Sahara Reporters now cites Nigerian intelligence as saying that the dead man is Mohammed Bashir, an important Boko Haram lieutenant, and that the Nigerians, not the Cameroonians, deserved the credit for his demise. 

Who knows whether Shekau is alive or dead?

The question may not matter much. As Boko Haram’s resurrection as a group following the killing of its genuinely charismatic leader Mohammed Yusuf shows, the movement is remarkably resilient. It doesn't depend on a single or main leader.

Further, if Shekau is alive, as I suspect he is, evidence is scant as to what his actual role in the movement’s leadership is. Boko Haram is more than Abubakar Shekau, alive or dead.

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