Like an outlaw in the Wild West, Abubakar Shekau has a US government bounty hanging over him – for $7m.
The leader of the most brutal insurgency to have emerged in Africa this side of the millennium, he has been a scourge of the people of Nigeria’s impoverished northeast. The regular carnage carried out in his name has made him infamous among the wider Nigerian public.
Until recently he was a relatively obscure figure in the pantheon of designated global terrorists. But his latest acts have brought him international condemnation. They have also cast a shadow over this week’s World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, the capital, which was designed to showcase Nigeria’s potential just weeks after it was crowned Africa’s largest economy.
Since January more than 1,500 people have been killed, mostly in remote villages, in the insurgency that Mr Shekau has waged in his efforts to carve out a strict Islamic caliphate within the country’s multi-faith and ethnically divided federation.
His extremist group, known as Boko Haram, which translates loosely as “western education is forbidden”, has long been a subject of interest among international intelligence agencies. Speculation about the extent of its links to al-Qaeda and its African offshoots has been widespread amid growing concern about jihadists linking up from Nigeria to Somalia.
Yet neither Mr Shekau nor the murderous sect he has commanded since 2009 were well known beyond Nigeria. The events of April 14 changed that. Boko Haram extremists detonated a car bomb at a bus station in Abuja, killing 75 people. Later, in the dead of night, gunmen from the group in army fatigues over-ran a military outpost in the remote, mostly Christian, town of Chibok and stormed a school.
The bomb was the first to strike the capital in two years, driving home to Nigerians the physical danger posed by the asymmetric war Mr Shekau is fighting – despite multibillion-dollar increases in security spending – and uniting the country in demands for more effective government action.
It was the events that followed, however, that won Boko Haram international notoriety, inspiring worldwide solidarity with the group’s victims, transmitted by an outpouring of anger on social media and in demonstrations on Nigerian streets.
Last month in Chibok, after scattering a small contingent of soldiers, Boko Haram extremists invaded a secondary school where several hundred teenage girls were sleeping ahead of final-year exams. According to consistent local testimony, they first coaxed the girls out of their dormitories and then carted them off in a convoy of trucks after burning down their school. Local and official accounts are less consistent after that.
At one point early on, Nigeria’s military spokesman said the army had found and freed all the girls, only to retract the claim the next day. It turned out that 53 girls had escaped by making a dash into the bush. They returned to their families traumatised, their brush with terror etched into the portraits that have emerged since. Almost a month later, nothing has been heard of the more than 200 other girls, although relatives who put together a search party believe they came close to a camp where they were first held.
Chibok is in the northeastern state of Borno, near a vast, ungoverned area of bush and mountain bordering Cameroon. The area has provided the kind of cover Afghanistan’s rugged mountains did for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There are caves not dissimilar to the network at Tora Bora through which Osama bin Laden escaped from American and allied Afghan forces in 2002.
Since May last year, when President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three worst-affected northeastern states, a military surge succeeded in pushing the group out of urban areas, and beyond territory they had in effect controlled. But across the wider region, Nigeria’s thinly stretched army has struggled to contain the violence.
“Boko Haram have mutated and deviated a lot from their initial ideology,” says Fatima Akilu, a psychologist and senior counter-terrorism adviser to the president. “It was a low-grade insurgency with territorial ambition. But with the massive pushback they have reverted to hit-and-run terrorism.”
In a video released this week, Mr Shekau claimed he was holding the girls. He goaded the authorities, declaring he would sell them into “marriage”, and threatened to add Mr Jonathan’s own daughter to his victims. In an hour-long tirade, he sought to justify slavery during war through Islamic precedent. “As soon as a girl reaches the age of 12 she should get married,” he said, flanked by masked gunmen in front of two armoured personnel carriers.
It was a chilling message for a predominately Muslim region in which the authorities already struggle to persuade parents to send their girls to school. But it was not the most violent atrocity he has carried out. As well as the Abuja bombing, earlier this year Boko Haram gunmen stormed another school, slaughtering 59 boys in their beds.
Mr Shekau has taken to making regular threats to President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth in the hope of fashioning an identity as a global terrorist. The wider issues raised by the abductions – slavery, girls’ education, paedophilia and rape – have hit a nerve, spurring Britain, China, France and the US, among others, to step in with technical assistance in the hunt for the girls. US and UK teams are already on the ground. Drone flights may follow.
“[Before] the rest of Nigeria saw the [Boko Haram] insurgency as the northeast’s problem. The rest of the world saw it as a Nigerian problem,” says Soji Adelaja, who is developing a master plan for the economic regeneration of the northeast to complement the military campaign.
Some politicians and human rights activists believe a chance was missed to steer Boko Haram away from the path of violence early in its evolution. “It could have been resolved through talking. But the opportunity was lost,” says Nuhu Ribadu, the former anti-corruption chief who hails from the northeast.
Mohamed Yusuf, the group’s original leader, was a charismatic preacher who travelled the length and breadth of the most populated northern states to build a following. His extreme teachings fell on fertile ground at a time when northern Nigeria was languishing in economic decline exacerbated by a loss of political power to the more prosperous south.
Early on, the group exercised hijra – removing themselves from a society they viewed as contaminated – to practise their form of Islam. But a confrontation with the police in the city of Maiduguri in 2009 led to Yusuf’s execution and the death of an estimated 800 of his followers. The more hot-headed Mr Shekau took over, and a heavy-handed approach by the army to the insurgency he launched exacerbated the crisis by drawing sympathy to the movement.
From what researchers have gleaned, Mr Shekau attended a Koranic school, like the majority of northern Nigerians, but with a stint of secular education. He has demonstrated a knack for combat, training his followers in terrorist tactics, and relishes the notoriety that his brutality has brought Boko Haram.
Ms Akilu from the counterterrorism team says: “Every terrorist group is defined by whoever holds the chain of command. Shekau is not an intellectual. A lot of them are in prison or dead so he doesn’t have checks and balances. When Mohamed Yusuf was killed he [Shekau] unleashed this amazing level of terror in an act of pure vengeance for the killing of the leader. He doesn’t have brakes,” she says. “All terrorists are dangerous, Shekau is particularly so.”
While the recent atrocities carried out by the group have left an impression of resurgence, she and other counterterrorism officials believe the reverse may be true. They say Boko Haram’s pool of potential recruits has shrunk as the population recoils at the nihilistic violence. Increasingly they have resorted to forced recruitment. More than 125 villagers were killed this week in the latest attack on a remote market town.
“They are spiralling out of control. The actions of the current leadership will alienate the more ideological elements of the group. There are people in Boko Haram who did not sign up for this,” Ms Akilu says.
It is a defining moment for Nigeria. Despite the violence, about 1,000 delegates turned up for the World Economic Forum. But the abduction of the girls has put a global spotlight – for all the country’s potential – on the threat to stability posed by the unequal way in which it has developed. Nigerians themselves are clamouring for more accountable and effective government.
Mr Jonathan this week declared a turning point. “I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria,” he said.
The megalomaniacal Mr Shekau says it is just the beginning. “We will soon go to Abuja; yes, we will go to Abuja,” he boasts.
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