The death of Abubakar Shekau removes one the world’s most brutal and effective terrorists, who plunged four nations Niger republic, Chad , Cameroun and Africa’s most populous nation Nigeria , into a religious war. Globally, he was best known for kidnapping nearly 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok on the night before their final exams, an abduction that sparked the world-wide social-media movement #BringBackOurGirls.
There was no official confirmation from Nigeria’s government, Boko Haram or the media arm of Islamic State. The Journal was able to review transcripts of geolocated, intercepted calls between insurgents discussing his suicide, alongside an audio message from a longtime mediator between Shekau and the government reporting him dead.
A child beggar born in Nigeria’s North East Yobe state, Shekau became the cackling face of a militant movement that kidnapped tens of thousands of children, forcing them into battle or marriage. Pursued by the air and manpower of more than seven foreign militaries, he evaded capture inside forest hide-outs too remote for a steady phone connection while marshaling the power of the internet to catapult his brand of extreme violence onto the world stage.The U.S. government’s $7 million reward for his capture made Shekau Africa’s most wanted man, a bounty that put him on a watch list alongside Osama bin Laden, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, though he outlived them all. Like Liberian warlord Charles Taylor or Uganda’s Joseph Kony, he was the singular figure driving a war in which children fought, vanished from their homes, and died.
“Shekau has been the longest lasting terrorist leader in the world; perhaps the world’s least understood warlord and its most underestimated,” said Bulama Bukarti, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, who is among the many prominent Nigerians Shekau had publicly threatened. “This is a huge moment for Nigeria
His death could unite feuding jihadist factions, or allow for peace talks with commanders who have long viewed Shekau as an intransigent obstacle, people close to the government’s mediation efforts said.
“With this development, the urgent activation of [peace talks] is required, to capitalize on the window created for mass surrender and disarmament,” a Nigerian intelligence memo said.
Known to his followers as “the Imam,” the bearded and irascible Shekau was a top target in America’s drone wars. In his camps, followers would scoop up shiny wrappers as small as a bouillon cube to avoid surveillance planes, former hostages and members recalled.
Paranoid of assassination, he slept in a flak jacket, executed followers for a whiff of disloyalty and vowed to kill any visitor carrying a cellphone. Nigerian soldiers, Chadian troops and South African mercenaries all failed to penetrate the maze of land mines, trenches and tunnels constructed around the hide-outs he called “Gaba Imam,” or “House of the Imam,” in Nigeria’s thorn-tree-studded Sambisa Forest.
U.S. drones flown from Cameroon spotted his camp in 2016, but subsequent Nigerian airstrikes missed their target, accidentally killing at least 10 of the Chibok schoolgirls instead ,the fundamentalist warlord was also a creature of the social-media age, followed by bodyguards who videotaped his routine diatribes for an online audience. In his sermons, he appeared to feign lunacy, gyrating against machine guns and insulting deceased historical figures from Abraham Lincoln to former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or claiming “Queen Elizabeth must be fuming with rage!”
Those who met him would say it was an act, to taunt the authorities whose countless assassination attempts and military incursions fell short: “I laugh when people call me insane,” several Chibok students recalled him saying when he addressed them in 2015, a stack of Qurans balanced atop his lap. “I am not a lunatic. I behave strangely just to infuriate Nigerians.”
Frustrated, senior Nigerian officials debated whether he existed at all, speculating that he was a series of body doubles meant to deceive the government. U.S. National Security Agency contractors hired interpreters who spoke his language, Kanuri, yet Washington struggled to assemble even basic biographical information, like whether he was born in 1965, 1969 or 1975; 1973 is the date estimated by Nigeria’s government. Theologians in Egypt and Sudan, Nigerian governors, a Swiss diplomat, and local clerics all tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him out of militancy.Zannah Mustapha, a retired lawyer from Maiduguri who knew Shekau as a young man and mediated talks to free the Chibok girls, said the terrorist leader had scarred northern Nigerian society in ways that would be difficult to heal.
“He has left a legacy of brutality and senseless killings. Nigeria has become numb,” Mr. Mustapha said. “If the government is able to act fast now, many abducted persons can be released.”
Abubakar Shekau was born in Shekau, a sand-strewn village near Nigeria’s border with Niger, according to neighbors and a woman there who identified herself as his mother, Fatima. During his childhood, Nigeria was expanding primary education into the mostly Muslim north where many villagers saw Western teaching as a threat to their traditional values. Fatima sent her son—gifted but argumentative, she said—to a Quranic school in the nearest major city, Maiduguri.
The city’s license plates read “Home of Peace,” but when Shekau arrived there in 1980, its population had tripled in 20 years and its economy began collapsing under successive military dictatorships. Shekau joined jobless youths making ends meet on the city’s streets, selling bottled fragrances to customers who called him Kauwa Dima, or perfume seller. By night, he accompanied a radical cleric, Mohammad Yusuf, who preached to thousands that Boko—Western education—was Haram—sinful. Shekau became Yusuf’s deputy.
Police shot Yusuf in custody in 2009—his final moments captured on an officer’s cellphone—leaving Shekau in charge of a prayer group that had radicalized into an armed rebellion, seeking revenge.
His followers drove car bombs into churches during Christmas, threw grenades into crowded bars, broke into overcrowded prisons or bank vaults and abducted foreigners—Chinese miners, German teachers, a French family on safari—and the wives of government officials. By 2012, they had begun systematically torching schools and executing teachers, as their leader popped up on YouTube to promise more violence.
By 2016, Boko Haram had split apart: Militants disenchanted with Shekau’s murderous leadership style formed Iswap. Their violent rivalry culminated Wednesday, when Iswap fighters penetrated Shekau’s inner sanctum and overwhelmed his bodyguards.
To avoid being taken, Shekau detonated a bomb, according to phone intercepts.
“We hope it brings down the senseless killings,” said Abba Modu, whose 6-year-old daughter was killed by the sect last year. “Especially the women and children.”
Culled from wall street Journal