Boko Haram’s Leader Is Dead: What Are the Humanitarian and Security Implications?

On May 19, 2021, Abubakar Shekau, the longtime leader of Boko Haram (also known as Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād or JAS) was killed during a clash with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). During the attack, Shekau reportedly detonated his suicide vest, killing himself instantly.

While Shekau’s death is a significant setback for Boko Haram, it also has ramifications for the humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria. In the past year, humanitarian access has deteriorated, and aid workers have increasingly found themselves the direct targets of armed groups. Given JAS’s hostility toward aid workers, unless ISWAP’s strategy shifts, these conditions are unlikely to change in the aftermath of Shekau’s death.

Q1: What is the overall humanitarian environment in northeast Nigeria, and what changes have occurred in the past year?

A1: More than a decade old, the humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria—Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa States—is one of the largest in the world. As of February 2021, an estimated 8.7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and as of April, more than 2.2 million people were internally displaced (80 percent of whom are women and children). Food insecurity is deteriorating, with 3.2 million people facing high acute food insecurity, a figure that is expected to increase to 4.4 million people in the coming summer months. This humanitarian crisis is largely driven by the ongoing conflict between ISWAP, JAS, and Nigerian security forces and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The biggest changes to the humanitarian operating environment are worsening access and the deliberate targeting of humanitarian infrastructure and personnel. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), from January to March 2021, there were 1,157 humanitarian access incidents in northeast Nigeria, a year-on-year increase of 453 incidents. Access is largely constrained by persistent insecurity, poor infrastructure, bureaucratic logistical impediments, and the Nigerian government’s “super camp” strategy that renders certain areas inaccessible to humanitarian aid. Additionally, armed groups continue to target traffic along key roads in the northeast, leaving aid workers highly dependent on the UN Humanitarian Air Service for access to field sites.

In what OCHA calls a “noticeable shift,” humanitarian personnel, facilities, and assets are now being directly targeted by both ISWAP and JAS. Most recently, in April 2021, ISWAP looted and burned humanitarian warehouses and private homes in a series of attacks on Damasak, a garrison town in Borno State. This attack resulted in the temporary suspension of humanitarian operations and the displacement of more than 65,000 people, 80 percent of the town’s population. Similarly, in March 2021, ISWAP targeted humanitarian facilities and a hospital, forcing 25 aid workers to seek temporary protection. JAS has also carried out significant attacks, kidnapping aid workers and reportedly ambushing humanitarian convoys. Both groups view humanitarian aid workers as legitimate targets; in its August 2020 edition of al-Naba magazine, ISWAP accused aid workers of espionage and moral corruption. This declaration came in response to international condemnation following ISWAP’s killing of three aid workers in July 2020.

Q2: What are the implications of Shekau’s death for humanitarian operations?

A2: The implications of Shekau’s death for both JAS and ISWAP views on humanitarian operations are uncertain. Despite JAS and ISWAP’s differing approaches toward Muslim civilians—a known point of contention between the two groups—their hostile treatment of the humanitarian community has been similar. The details surrounding ISWAP’s recent release of aid workers have yet to fully emerge; it is unclear if it represents a change in strategy or a momentary attempt to capture goodwill. Some analysts attribute this potential shift to Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s return to power after successfully leading ISWAP’s operations against Shekau. However, ISWAP previously carried out multiple attacks on aid workers and civilians, and globally the Islamic State has announced it considers humanitarian workers as legitimate targets. Yet, even if ISWAP temporarily decreases its direct targeting of aid workers, access challenges and attacks on humanitarian infrastructure are likely to persist.

In the days following Shekau’s death, ISWAP and loyalist JAS fighters appeared to be primarily focused on fighting each other. While this may temporarily reduce the groups’ impact on humanitarian services, the civilian population is likely to find itself caught in the crossfire, particularly in areas formerly under JAS control. 

ISWAP’s hearts and minds strategy represents an enduring challenge for humanitarian operations. In areas under their control, ISWAP is able to extort funding from civilians in exchange for critical services and physical protection and has incentive to keeping humanitarian services out. Therefore, as humanitarian needs grow, so too could ISWAP’s attempts to deny humanitarian access. 

Q3: What does Shekau’s demise mean for broader security challenges?

A3: Shekau’s death is a symbolic win for the Nigerian government, even if it had no role in the extremist’s death, and it potentially signifies the beginning of the end of JAS’s decade-long reign of terror. For many Nigerians, Shekau—more so than ISWAP—was the force behind the region’s plight and misery. He was responsible for the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014, for example. Given his preference for attacking civilians, as opposed to ISWAP’s focus on government and foreign targets, his death will be a relief to many northeastern residents.

The northeast’s future will depend on the disposition of remnants of JAS as much as ISWAP, the Nigerian military, and other security actors’ next moves.

With their leader gone, JAS fighters are confronted with a decision: join ISWAP, as reportedly as many as 18 commanders have; carry on the JAS mantle without Shekau’s celebrity; or devolve into roving criminal bands. While many analysts predict ISWAP will reign supreme across the region, others have forecasted a more chaotic landscape, similar to Nigeria’s northwest where kidnapping and banditry runs rampant.

ISWAP’s gains from its rival’s death are evident, but the group will still face considerable obstacles to expand its reach. ISWAP and JAS have operated in different parts of the region, separated by border zones passing through the Mafa, Dikwa, and Kala Balge local government areas. ISWAP will still struggle to address its capacity challenges, incorporate JAS fighters, and assert control in formerly JAS-controlled turf south and east of the Sambisa Forest. Alex Thurston, in a recent Lawfare post, judged that “ISWAP’s activities have an inevitable ceiling.”

Finally, the Nigerian military and the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), which historically have drawn their recruits from southern Borno State, will have influence on the outcome. The military primarily focused on JAS until 2019, and it has remained fixated on removing Shekau. While suffering from low morale, indiscipline, and capacity shortfalls, the military doesn’t have much room to maneuver. However, it has benefited from symbolic boosts in the past, including when President Buhari first assumed office in 2015.

Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Judd Devermont is the director of the CSIS Africa Program. Kelly Moss is a research associate of the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

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Kelly Moss

Judd Devermont