One of the most brutal jihadi militants on Earth has reportedly been replaced.On August 12, Idris Deby, Chad’s autocratic president, announced that Abubakr Shekau, the leader of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, had been deposed and replaced by a new leader more open to compromise.
It should be noted that Deby is hardly the most reliable source of information on the fight against terrorism in West Africa.
In March 2014, the Chadian government claimed the army had killed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an assertion that was later disproved. And information on Boko Haram’s inner workings is notably scarce, even compared to other, oftentimes secretive jihadi militant groups.
But there’s at least some reason to take this claim seriously. Shekau has not appeared in public or put out an audio or video message since March, and he did not appear in the group’s latest propaganda video in early August.
He’s famously obsessive about safety and operational security, behaving in ways that suggest an acute sense of imminent danger even within Boko Haram’s remote safe haven in northern Nigeria.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider, Shakau was practically unique among major jihadi figures for using multiple body doubles in his video messages. And Boko Haram’s March 2015 alliance with ISIS provided a potential motive for pushing out Shekau.
Gartenstein-Ross said there’s insufficient information to determine whether Shekau has actually been removed from the group’s leadership. But he said that if there were an internal move against him, it would signal a shift in factional leadership, rather than a change in Boko Haram’s overall strategy or direction.
“It wouldn’t really be a replacement of him as leader,” Gartenstein-Ross speculated, while cautioning that the internal dynamics of the groups are incredibly difficult to discern. “It would instead be a faction, whether bigger or smaller, that’s peeling off in the wake of the decision to pledge to ISIS.”
Numerous regional jihadi leaders have gained some kind of global profile over the past decade, and Shekau stands out from this group for his sheer viciousness. Shekau took over Boko Haram in 2009, at a time when the group had lost much of its top-level leadership.