Nigerian military claims killing of Boko Haram leader’s ‘impersonator’

In the past few days, record numbers of Boko Haram fighters are reported to have been surrendering to Nigerian forces. According to the Nigerian Defence Headquarters, “135 terrorists yesterday evening surrendered along with equipment to troops around Biu Local Government Area.” The Nigerian military also reported that 88 insurgents from the group surrendered in Yadi and 45 others were “taken” in Mubi.

Last week, government forces were able to repel attempts made by Boko Haram to take control of Konduga, approximately 70 kilometers from Borno state capital Maiduguri. Prior to that offensive, the group was gaining ground, taking control of several towns and their environs in Nigeria’s northeast. Nigerian Archbishop Oliver Dashe Doeme stated that as of Sept. 18, Boko Haram held 25 towns in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states.

The terrorists made several attempts to take Konduga. Responding to those offensives, Nigerian forces reportedly killed “no fewer than 200 members” of the group. They also recovered arms, ammunition, and many vehicles from the Boko Haram fighters.

On Sept. 18, the Nigerian Defense HQ tweeted rather cryptically that at Konduga, there was a “seriously wounded high ranking terrorists Leader is being treated in a Military medical facility after he was captured in the OP.” The identity of this commander was not clear.

The story then evolved as further information came out indicating that the body in question might be that of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader since 2010. The published photo of the dead man bears a strong resemblance to the terrorist leader seen in recent images and videos.

Some news stories said, however, that the body was not that of Shekau but rather belonged to a man reportedly known as his impersonator. On Sept. 21, a story in the Nigerian press quoted senior intelligence and military sources who noted that “it is getting more certain that the terrorists’ commander who has been mimicking Shekau in those videos is the one killed in Konduga on September 17, 2014.”

Yesterday, Nigerian defense spokesman Chris Olukolade stated: “In the course of those encounters, one Mohammed Bashir, who has been acting or posing on videos as the deceased Abubakar Shekau, the eccentric character known as leader of the group, died.” According to Olukolade, Bashir’s aliases included “Abacha Abdullahi Geidam, Damasack, etc.” as well as “Abubakar Shekau.” A report in Punch News cited a claim by a Nigerian journalist that Shekau himself is “hale and hearty.”

Olukolade’s statement and those made by others shine scant light upon the terrorist group; instead, they yield more questions. First, if Mohammed Bashir has been mimicking Boko Haram’s leader, what happened to the first Abubakar Shekau? And, how long has this doppelganger been ruling in his stead, if he is, in fact, commanding the group?

The Nigerian military has reported on two separate occasions that Shekau was dead. Nigerian officials initially thought he was killed in the same firefight in 2009 that killed his predecessor and Boko Haram founder, Mohammad Yusuf. He was later believed to have been killed in June 2013.

AFP reported that earlier this year, Marilyn Ogar, spokesperson for Nigeria’s secret police, claimed that “the original Shekau is dead” and that the person appearing in numerous videos was an imposter. It should be noted that no proof was offered with this statement.

If there has been some sort of change in leadership, one must ask what reverberations those alterations may have on the group and its capabilities.

Additionally, a dead doppelganger doesn’t necessarily mean that the original is dead. Throughout Boko Haram’s ascendance, Shekau has been in hiding. It’s also possible that Shekau, and perhaps other group leaders, have several doppelgangers.

Shekau has always been somewhat enigmatic. Even his age is unconfirmed. There have been reports in the past that highlighted inconsistencies between Shekau’s appearance across several videos. Tracking Terrorism reports that in several videos, there are variations in skin color, posturing, verbal tendencies, and cadence.

For security reasons, having a body double can offer further protection. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi employed several body doubles as part of their protection details.

Given that Shekau has stayed in hiding these past few months, it also seems bizarre that he would be on the frontlines of battle with his troops. Konduga, while an important area along the way to Maiduguri, is not the region’s capital. Being on the frontlines of a big battle, such as one for control of a regional capital, could be a strong move from a propaganda perspective. However, the battle for Konduga was not such a fight.

While the Nigerian military appears to be touting its success, its recent warning to those who may follow in Bashir’s footsteps highlights the fact that the battle against Boko Haram is not over. Tweeting yesterday, Nigeria’s Defence HQ commented: “On ‘Shekau’ Brand: The Nigerian military will serve justice to anyone who assumes that Designation/Title.”

Although some of Shekau’s fighters appear to be surrendering as reports of the death of their purported emir emerge, the group is not on its last legs. The violent ideology and aims of Boko Haram clearly resonate with some adherents. The group’s stalwarts will probably not give up that easily, even if their leader is actually dead. And as has been seen with other Islamist terror groups, such as al Qaeda itself, the death of a charismatic leader does not guarantee the demise of the group.

Indeed, Boko Haram fighters yesterday stormed two predominantly Christian villages in Borno state, killing 12 people, including a pastor and a teacher, and destroying 10 churches as well as a clinic and other structures at a girls’ school.

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