Nigeria army chief dies in aircrash, Boko Haram leader said killed

If confirmed, the extremist figure’s demise would be a huge blow to his group already weakened by air strikes.
Sunday 23/05/2021
A file picture shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau at an undisclosed location in Nigeria. (AFP)
A file picture shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau at an undisclosed location in Nigeria. (AFP)

ABUJA, Nigeria--Nigeria’s top-ranking army commander Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru was laid to rest in the capital Abuja on Saturday, days after Boko Haram extremist leader Abubakar Shekau had himself been seriously wounded or possibly killed.

Attahiru’s death was the third military air disaster this year and the army posted videos on social networks of the service attended by political and military leaders at the national mosque.

Army chief of staff Attahiru was only appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari last January in a shakeup of the senior command to better fight surging violence and a more than decade-long jihadist insurgency.

Attahiru died as news emerged that Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremist leader Abubakar Shekau had himself been seriously wounded or possibly killed after clashes with a rival Islamic State (ISIS)-allied faction.

The aircraft went down trying to land at the Kaduna International Airport “due to inclement weather”, the armed forces said.

Nigeria’s military has been battling an Islamist insurgency in the northeast since 2009, a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 and displaced around two million more.

Attahiru had once been in charge of leading the frontline offensive against Boko Haram’s commander Shekau in the northeast in 2017.

Local intelligence sources said Shekau had been seriously wounded Wednesday when rival jihadists attacked his stronghold in the northeastern state of Borno.

Sources said Shekau was wounded when he shot himself to try to evade capture by militants from the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

One intelligence source said Shekau had already died from his wounds in Nainawa village on Thursday, though that was not confirmed by authorities.

A villager told AFP he had seen a body driven into Nainawa on Thursday in a convoy of some 20 Boko Haram vehicles.

Neither ISWAP nor Boko Haram have reported Shekau dead, but analysts said his loss would be a huge blow to his faction and potentially allow ISWAP to consolidate territorial control in Nigeria’s northeast.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has been seriously wounded after trying to kill himself to avoid capture during clashes with rival Islamic State-allied extremists in the north of the country, two intelligence sources said on Thursday.

Shekau’s Boko Haram faction and fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) had been battling in north-eastern Borno state, where ISWAP has become the dominant force in Nigeria’s more than decade-long jihadist insurgency.

It was not the first time Shekau has been reported killed or seriously wounded. If confirmed, though, his loss could be a huge blow to his extremist group already weakened by air strikes on its bases and defections of his fighters.

— Extremist splits —

More than 40,000 people have been killed and over two million displaced from their homes by the conflict in northeast Nigeria.  Fighting has since spread to parts of neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

Boko Haram and ISWAP have in the past fought battles for control of territory after the original group splintered into the two rival factions in 2016.

ISWAP has emerged as the stronger more professional force, analysts say, carrying out complex attacks on the military and overrunning army bases.

Routing Shekau’s faction from its Sambisa forest stronghold would be a worrying advance for the ISIS extremists who have bases in Nigeria’s Alagarno forest and around Lake Chad, with access to Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

“If ISWAP really controls Sambisa, Alagarno and the Lake, it can bear on all the main roads into Maiduguri,” said Vincent Foucher, a research fellow with the French National Centre for Science Research, referring to Borno state’s strategic capital city.

“Clearly, this is not good news for the armies of Nigeria and the other Lake Chad states.”

Shekau took over Boko Haram, formally known as the Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, after its founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody in 2009.

Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram turned large swathes of the northeast into a no-go territory, proclaiming a “caliphate” in the Borno town of Gwoza in 2014.

An offensive since 2015 by Nigerian troops backed by soldiers from Cameroon, Chad and Niger drove jihadists from most of the area that they had once controlled. At that time Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram was “technically” defeated.

After disagreements over Shekau’s indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians and use of women and children suicide bombers, Boko Haram eventually split into two rival factions in 2016.

The ISWAP faction originally established by Muhammad Yusuf’s son Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi now has the backing of the Islamic State group over Shekau’s fighters.

ISWAP is particularly active on the Chad and Niger borders and has since July 2018 has carried out numerous attacks on military bases.

The group is also behind the abduction and killing of Christians and aid workers.

Shekau’s faction continues to stage suicide bombings targeting civilians, but has been under pressure from the military that has bombed its camps and hideouts.

In 2019, a group of fighters known as “Bakura” operating in the Lake Chad area pledged allegiance to Shekau.

In December 2020, Boko Haram claimed to have been responsible for abducting hundreds of young boys from a school in Kankara in the northwest, far from its Sambisa forest base. They were released after a week.

Over the past few months mass abductions have increased in Nigeria, mostly carried out by criminal groups for ransom, some of which are believed to have forged links with jihadists.