CALABAR, Nigeria — Where is the leader of Boko Haram? The group that has terrorized a swathe of northern Nigeria, with its violence spreading into Cameroon and beyond, released a new video this week, but its leader, Abubakar Shekau, wasn’t in it.
Most of the world first caught sight of Shekau more than a year ago after the kidnapping of scores of young women from a school in Chibok, when he flaunted his defiance of the Nigerian government and common humanity. The #bringbackourgirls movement became an international phenomenon, and made Shekau a globally recognized villain.
But Shekau was last heard from in March, when he released an audio message pledging allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) group.
In the new video, an unidentified young man speaks in the local Hausa language, with subtitles in Arabic and English, and in the name of the Islamic State in West Africa, calling on supporters to be patient.
“We are still present everywhere we had been before,” he said.
The eight-minute clip showed the militants attacking a security checkpoint, seizing weapons, and slitting the throat of a man dressed in a police uniform.
The gruesome video appears to be a genuine, and its slick production values suggest that it was put together with the help of ISIS-allied propaganda units.
This is the second successive video released by Boko Haram in which Shekau has failed to appear. The previous one, released in June, neither featured nor mentioned Shekau, prompting questions about whether he may have been killed or injured by military forces. In Nigeria’s northeast region, where the insurgents operate, there is widespread belief that he has fled the country, shaving off his Islamist beard to help him travel incognito.
But this is hardly the first time Shekau has been said to have died, but reports of his death in the past proved premature, and the way they were handled by the governments in the region did nothing to enhance the authorities’ credibility.
The Nigerian authorities claimed to have killed Shekau in 2009, at the same time the sect’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was reported to have been extrajudicially executed. Shekau has not been seen in person by any outside his organization since that time and there have been regular reports that the security services have killed him. In the past, however, Shekau issued a video each time it was rumored he’d been killed, thus proving he is still alive. The military’s response? It insisted soldiers had killed the real Shekau, but that another leader of the deadly group had assumed his character.
In September 2014, the Cameroonian army claimed that it had killed Shekau in a shootout, and released a photograph of a corpse that bore a marked resemblance to Shekau. However, Nigerian officials said that the dead man was Mohammed Bashir, another notorious Boko Haram leader, and that he was killed by Nigerian forces, not the Cameroonian army.
The U.S. in 2013 issued a $7 million bounty for Abubakar Shekau’s capture, in what the Nigerian government described then as a “positive development.”
As the Boko Haram war continues with unrelenting ferocity, in many quarters, the concern isn’t whether Shekau is dead or alive, it is rather a question of who really is in charge of the group.
It is certain that the man in the latest video isn't the same as the masked militant who appeared in the June video. That figure’s accent did not sound like that of a traditional Boko Haram commander. The young unmasked speaker in Monday’s video spoke with an accent from the Kanuri ethnic group, to which Shekau belongs.
Islamic scholars and traditional leaders in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state, where much of the insurgency has taken place, believe that Boko Haram commanders can only come from the region of the Kanuri, the main ethnic group in Borno, and small parts of Niger and Cameroon, and the speaker in the new video speaks with strong Kanuri inflections.
A senior military official told The Daily Beast that officials had “seen the video and are looking to see if it is authentic.”
Interestingly, the release of the new video comes hours after the Nigerian army announced that it had carried out an operation in Borno that led to the capture of a another top Boko Haram commander, and the rescue of 178 people, more than half of whom were children held by the Islamist militant group.
“The Nigerian army has seized so much from Boko Haram of late, and this has weakened them,” said Ushie Michael, a prominent Nigerian security analyst. “The particular faction that released the video may want to prove to the government that they are still formidable, and that they are the right people to negotiate with.”
Michael added that the fact that the speaker in Monday’s video appeared unmasked could mean that “he was trying to introduce himself to the government for the purpose of negotiations.”
Ironically, the government said barely a week ago that it had been approached by a group claiming to represent the Islamist sect with an offer to hold peace talks.
Spokesman for the Nigerian government Garba Shehu told Reuters that “a faction of the Boko Haram group came forward claiming to have the mandate to negotiate with the government,” adding that efforts were under way to "verify their claims" of having such authority.
“It is now left for them to show proof that they have the mandate, but they made it clear that they are representing a faction of Boko Haram that wants peace,” Shehu said.
The Nigerian government recently opened the door to talks with the Jihadists. President Muhammadu Buhari told CNN in an interview last week that his administration would be willing to negotiate with Boko Haram if it meant returning the 219 abducted Chibok schoolgirls still held by the insurgents for more than a year.
“If we are convinced that the [Boko Haram] leadership that presented itself can deliver these girls safe and sound, we’ll be prepared to negotiate what they want,” he said. “We have to be very careful about the credibility [of those] claiming that they can deliver. We are taking our time because we want to bring them safe back to their parents.”