The Many Deaths of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s Mysterious, Immortal Leader

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More than 130 Boko Haram militants surrendered to Nigerian forces, the country’s military said Wednesday, amid questions about the status of the group’s shadowy head and his potential body doubles.

Just a month ago, Boko Haram, which came to international infamy after kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, claimed to have established a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria, with leader Abubakr Shekau announcing its rise in a long video message. But in the past week, the Cameroonian army claimed that it had killed Shekau in a recent operation, and issued a photo of a corpse resembling the leader as he appeared on YouTube. On Wednesday, Nigerian officials said the dead man was a fake who had “been acting or posing on videos as the deceased Abubakar Shekau, the eccentric character known as leader of the group.”

No one knows what’s really happening with the man known as Abubakr Shekau. His age is unclear, and he’s been reported dead half a dozen times, only to appear again, seemingly unscathed, in propaganda videos. Experts, however, believe his speech patterns, mannerisms, features, and skin tone vary across time in the messages, indicating the use of doubles. Some say those imposters may well have been killed in the numerous attempts on Shekau’s life. (As Nigeria’s most-wanted man, he currently has a $7 million bounty on his head.)

Wikipedia lists Shekau as long dead, having been killed in June 2013 in an operation led by Nigerian forces. That echoes the country’s line today — that his name is just a “brand name for the terrorists.” According to them, the man killed by Cameroon is imposter, but the hunt for the group continues because it’s just as powerful without him. “The person claiming to be the national leader [of Boko Haram] is not the original Abubakar Shekau,” Nigerian secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar claimed.

Meanwhile, Nigerian online paper DailyPost identified the dead impostor as Isa Damsaka — others say his name was Mohammed Bashir — who has been appearing in Boko Haram videos since slightly before the real leader’s death.

Still others say that the real Shekau is still out there, pulling strings from behind the scenes and avoiding the dangers of battlefields. “A more likely scenario is that Shekau remains stationed at one of Boko Haram’s central operational and logistical bases which are claimed to either be located within Sambisa Forest or the Mandara Mountain range which straddles the Nigerian and Cameroonian border,” Ryan Cummings, a South African risk consultant, told AFP

Of course, the real story behind the man whose group has wreaked havoc on parts of Nigeria for years doesn’t matter — his spirit lives on in his many incarnations, each one more full of himself than the last. The real Shekau, for all that is known, may have never even shown his face.

And as for the recent surrender? Just over 100 militants is not much for a group whose manpower is said to number in the thousands, most of whom have likely never seen their dear leader in the flesh.