LAGOS (AFP) – Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau likely has little control over his fighters, the International Crisis Group said on Thursday, calling the Islamist terror group “more dispersed than ever”.
A new report from the Brussels-based think-tank said many of Boko Haram’s senior commanders are probably based outside Nigeria, including in neighbouring Cameroon and Niger.
Shekau, declared a global terrorist by the United States which put a $7 million bounty on his head, frequently issues fiery video messages that claim credit for attacks.
But little is known about the insurgent commander, including his potential whereabouts or the extent of his influence in the Islamist militia blamed for killing 1,500 people already this year.
Boko Haram’s “isolated leader, the violent Abubakar Shekau, probably has little daily control over cells,” the Crisis Group said.
The insurgents were “more dispersed than ever, with many leaders in (Nigeria’s) Adamawa mountains, Cameroon, and Niger”, it added.
Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
It emerged more than a decade ago under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim preacher from the northeast who gained considerable support through his vocal criticism of outrageous corruption.
Shekau had been one of Yusuf’s top deputies and took over Boko Haram following Yusuf’s death in police custody in 2009.
Under Shekau’s leadership, “Boko Haram has grown more ruthless, violent and destructive”, the Crisis Group said in a 62-page report on how to tackle the insurgency.
The group has been blamed for waves of gruesome attacks since 2010, notably suicide bombings at churches, the slaughter of defenceless civilians and students at boarding schools as they slept.
Citing an anonymous Nigerian intelligence source, the Crisis Group suggested Shekau has partially lost support because some Boko Haram members “are fed up with the bloodletting (and) want to settle down”.
The Islamist group Ansaru, which is thought to be an offshoot of Boko Haram and has claimed the killing and murder of several foreign hostages, takes almost no direction from Shekau, it added.
Ansaru claimed responsibility for a series of high-profile abductions last year but little has been heard from the group in recent months.
The Crisis Group report supported the notion previously voiced by local and foreign analysts that force alone cannot end the insurgency.
It said massive development and poverty alleviation schemes in Nigeria’s acutely poor north were needed to curb government resentment among those who have become vulnerable to radicalisation.
It noted a new “soft” approach announced by Nigeria’s national security adviser last month that aims to tackle the root causes of the insurgency.
But it warned that “it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented”.