Abubakar Shekau: Boko Haram leader with a thirst for vengeance

Boko Haram has achieved global notoriety by kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls - yet little is known about its leader, Abubakar Shekau

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 12:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 6:39pm

Watch: Boko Haram claims Nigerian schoolgirls' abduction

No one knows how old he is. Some say 35. Some say 36. Others think he's 44. Twice he was believed dead, and twice he reemerged to conduct an even broader campaign of killing and terror that made him one of the most wanted men in the world.

His name is Abubakar Shekau. He is the leader of Boko Haram. And he has your girls.

There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell; he commands

"I abducted the girls at a Western education school," Shekau said on Monday in a video. "I said Western education should end … I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell; he commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women."

For a group as fragmented and diverse as Boko Haram, which kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls three weeks ago, one of the few unifying factors is extremist Muslim ideology. And no one believes in the cause more than Shekau, a complex figure with a US$7 million bounty on his head.

"It is Allah that instructed us," Shekau said in the video. "Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses - smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush and [Goodluck] Jonathan - will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value."

Where does such vengeance come from?

Raised Muslim, he was born in the 1970s in Shekau, near the border between Niger and Nigeria, in the heart of the former Sokoto caliphate. In 1990, Shekau moved to a town that would become the birthplace of Boko Haram to study under a traditional cleric, according to the International Crisis Group. In the early 2000s, he met its future leader, Muhammad Yusuf. Shekau became one of his acolytes and was soon one of the top lieutenants in the group.

Intense and quiet, Shekau was more bookish than the group's gregarious leader, Yusuf. "Shekau was always studying and writing, and was more devoted and modest than anyone else," Ahmad Salkida, considered the top Nigerian authority on Boko Haram, told the Financial Times in 2012. "He would only wear cheap clothes and did not accept even to drive a car, preferring a motorbike."

Together, the men built what Salkida described in a separate account as an "imaginary state within a state".

Boko Haram was a sophisticated apparatus: a cabinet of leadership, a brigade of guards, a military branch, a large farm, and "an effective micro finance scheme". It lured the area's impoverished and uneducated youths. "Boko Haram was founded on ideology, but poor governance was the catalyst for it to spread," Salkida said.

Boko Haram, however, wouldn't stay peaceful for long. Its clashes with members of Nigerian security forces between 2004 and 2006 grew in intensity, and Yusuf "had trouble keeping his unruly lieutenants, particularly Shekau, in check", reports the International Crisis Group.

In 2009, Yusuf was captured by the Nigerian authorities in a battle that appeared to kill Shekau. Yusuf was soon killed in prison, and Boko Haram, deprived of its chief, seemed to be on the verge of collapse. But then, less than a year later, Shekau reappeared and was appointed the group's new leader because he was "radical and aggressive". Shekau released a video vowing to exterminate Western culture and education in Nigeria.

Boko Haram has a similar operational structure to al-Qaeda. There are individual cells that affiliate under the same name but operate autonomously.

But even with such division, Shekau has maintained control - and created a mystique - through his brutality and ability to survive. In 2013, the Nigerian military again announced he likely had been killed. But he surfaced once more in a fresh video, saying he was "protected by Allah".

"Why is he so violent? I think because Shekau was almost killed," Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, told France 24 television. "Imagine coming back from the dead. He knows he doesn't have a second chance if he's caught by the security forces … He was in the mouth of the crocodile, now he's coming back to kill the crocodile."