Nigeria’s government no longer has any doubts that Abubakar Shekau, the notorious leader of the Boko Haram terror group, is dead.
Reports of Shekau’s death first emerged three months ago, with word he had been killed during a confrontation in the Sambisa Forest with rival terror group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Despite some initial skepticism, Nigerian officials now say the reports appear to be accurate.
"Our position is that he has been reported dead and he is dead," Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed told VOA’s Hausa service in an interview late Monday.
“Going from reports from the camp of Boko Haram itself, and going by the instability that has followed shortly after and the struggle for succession, and the recent surrender by thousands of Boko Haram adherents, I think it's safe to assume that really, you know, he's dead," Mohammed said. “(We've) not seen any resurfacing of Abubakar Shekau."
The Nigerian assessment aligns with the thinking of some U.S. officials who, like their Nigerian counterparts, have yet to see conclusive evidence.
“We think he was probably killed,” a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the intelligence about the Boko Haram leader.
Other U.S. officials have noted that the number of reports about Shekau’s death and the sourcing of those reports appear to be more credible than previous accounts of his demise.
Still, they have been wary of confirming that Shekau — who has faked his death several times only to “come back to life” months later — is in fact dead.
“The United States has not yet been able to independently verify these reports,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA last month.
Other intelligence agencies and counterterrorism officials also remain skeptical, voicing their doubts to a United Nations monitoring team for a report issued late last month.
Boko Haram has been “significantly weakened,” the report said, noting, “Some member states believe that Shekau may have escaped from the Sambisa Forest.”
In the meantime, ISWAP, looking to capitalize on the situation, has been offering details through a leaked audio recording and in the group’s online newsletter in June, promoting the narrative that Shekau died.
According to its account in Al-Naba, translated by SITE Intelligence Group, IS fighters found Shekau hiding with his guards by a tree, and rather than surrender, Shekau “detonated his explosive jacket, killing himself."
Following the initial reports of Shekau’s death in May, a second State Department spokesperson told VOA that if true, “the death of one of the most violent terrorists in African history would be a positive development.”
But the official also cautioned that Shekau’s death, alone, would not be reason to rejoice.
“Even if Shekau has been killed, terrorism remains a threat to peace and stability in the region,” the spokesperson told VOA. “Boko Haram is not the only terrorist group operating in the area.”
Other officials have since echoed that concern.
“While some may take solace in the death of a brutally violent terrorist leader, we are concerned his death will likely allow Islamic State West Africa Province to consolidate fighters and resources into a more cohesive terrorist effort,” Special Operations Command Africa spokesperson Major Andrew Caulk, told VOA.
“A unified and more externally focused ISWAP could dramatically destabilize the Lake Chad basin area without substantial, coordinated multinational intervention,” he added.
Prior to Shekau’s reported death, intelligence officials said he likely commanded an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 fighters across Nigeria and Cameroon.
ISWAP, which split with Shekau about five years ago, has an estimated 3,500 fighters in Nigeria and surrounding countries.
Shekau led Boko Haram since about 2009 and is blamed for orchestrating a campaign of terror that has killed more than 30,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes. Under Shekau’s leadership, the group gained additional notoriety for the 2014 kidnapping of about 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria.
The U.S. designated Shekau as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2012 and has been offering a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to his capture.
VOA’s Hausa service contributed to this report.