Nigeria’s military says Abubakar Shekau, the leader of militant Islamist group Boko Haram, may have died of a gun-shot wound sustained during an assault by government forces on his forest hide-out in north-eastern Nigeria last month.
Nigeria analyst Andrew Walker assesses the implications of the claim.
If the death of Shekau is verified, then it is undoubtedly a key milestone in the life of the group which, in almost exactly four years, has murdered thousands in northern and central Nigeria.
Since 2009, the group (whose name roughly translated means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language) has waged a guerrilla insurgency against the state and a wide array of “soft” targets.
Boko Haram believes its war will bring a strident and extreme form of Islamic law to Nigeria.
School children, teachers, the UN, the police, north-eastern traditional leaders, journalists, mobile phone towers, ordinary Nigerians going about their lives have all come under attack.
The group is also reported to have moved to Mali during the conflict there, where it is alleged to have received training from foreign jihadis.
Looking back over the last four years the attacks appear to be almost mini-campaigns, responses by the group to events in Nigeria and outside.
The type of attacks evolved as the group developed, and in some cases occurred in several areas in short succession — evidence the group was controlled by a tight cadre of people, and the cell-like structure of the organisation took direction.
So killing the leadership might possibly have a big effect on how the group is organised and how well it is able to repeat such big campaign attacks in future.
“Might possibly” because what is known for sure about Boko Haram is very scant. Reliable information from Nigeria in general is a rare thing; from a secretive Islamist insurgency even rarer.
Certainly, until Nigerians see more proof, they are unlikely to believe that Shekau is actually dead — the military has claimed they have killed top leaders, even Shekau himself, before.
Shekau appeared in a video circulated to journalists on August 12, but the military has claimed this was acted by an impostor.