08/25/2016 The Nigerian army reckons that it has fatally wounded Abubakar Shekau, the demented leader of Boko Haram and ally of Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS). It also says it has killed several of his top henchmen in the same airstrike in the northeast of the country.
This will be the fourth time that the Nigerians have declared that they have killed Shekau. On each occasion he has turned up in a video to demonstrate that he is safe and well. The government in Abuja has yet to learn that by issuing these hopeful but inaccurate statements, they seriously undermine their general credibility.
Of course, local commanders, eager to demonstrate that they are at last getting on top of the brutal insurgency, are prone to exaggeration. Knowing this, the government should exercise the greatest caution when handling information that has been passed to them from the frontline. Besides anything else, insisting that Shekau is dead only to have him show himself to be alive and kicking is to hand the terrorists an unnecessary propaganda coup.
The natural temptation is to grasp at any positive piece of information to pass on to a public that is increasingly frustrated at the army’s, until recent months, largely shambolic attempts to contain, let alone suppress, the terrorists.
The Nigerian military has long been good at putting officers through overseas staff colleges and mounting slick parades, but for too long the reality in the northeast of the country was that troops were poorly led, badly equipped and undermotivated. Boko Haram thugs ruled the night, crept up and murdered soldiers supposedly on guard duty in isolated posts and slaughtered and abducted civilians.
Since he became president in March, the former general Muhammadu Buhari has injected discipline and vim into the forces confronting the terrorists. Top commanders have been fired and their replacements have been given the military’s best units and pilots to crush the terrorists. The level of equipment and logistical support has also been boosted. Moreover, there appears to have been a significant input of satellite and communications intelligence from Washington sources. This may explain the devastating airstrike that is supposed to have hit Shekau and his top commanders.
There is, however, one front on which Buhari’s government could perhaps be doing more. It is less about getting the propaganda right for his own people and more about reaching into the heads of the terrorists. Shekau announced his allegiance to Daesh last year but has since fallen out with the leadership in Raqaa. Indeed earlier this month, Daesh announced that it had replaced Shekau with another leader.
Criminal enterprises around the world such as Boko Haram have adopted the Daesh “franchise” in the hope of giving some legitimacy to their savagery. But it is a mere vanity to be able to squat heavily armed and in full camouflage gear in front of a black Daesh banner whose slogan has been tweaked to include their group. Daesh may supply weapons and advice but the one thing that it has in common with all of its satraps is complete amorality and a nihilist dedication to carnage and destruction.
Buhari’s intelligence chiefs should surely be exploiting the rift with Daesh to turn the Boko Haram terrorists against each other. Whether Shekau is dead or not, fostering divisions among his followers remains a good priority.