Boko Haram leader’s profile: chilling but incomplete

“His name is Abubakar Shekau. He is the leader of Boko Haram. And he has your girls.”

So begins a chilling profile in the Washington Post on the leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist gang that abducted more than 300 girls in mid-April. It’s a great start, but it isn’t sustained.

Under Shekau, Boko Haram has bombed churches and massacred people by the hundreds — and it abducted eight more girls on Monday night. Victims include not only Christians but also Muslims who don’t want his ruthless version of Sharia.

The article fills in absorbing details on the man the writer calls “both an intellectualizing theologian and a ruthless killer.” But like much other secular coverage, the profile doesn’t quite get to the bottom of Shekau’s reasons for his brutality — including the mutant breed of radical Islam his group pushes. This despite saying that “one of the few unifying factors is extremist ideology.”

Not that religious references are lacking, largely in Shekau’s own words:

“It is Allah that instructed us,” Shekau said in the video released Monday. “Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses — smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush and [Goodluck] Jonathan — will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.”

Yet this horrendous paragraph is chased with a hand-wringing “why” question: “Where does such vengeance come from? What does he want? Who is he?” As if some terrible injustice must have driven this poor man to terrorism and kidnapping. Incredibly, the story actually offers an excuse. More on that later.

We get long but spotty background. The story says Shekau was “raised Muslim” without saying which branch of Islam. (Yes, it matters.) It says he was raised “in the heart of the former Sokoto caliphate,” an unwitting clue on the aims of Boko Haram. As the BBC says, the Sokoto caliphate once ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon.

The profile says he became a follower of a leader named Muhammad Yusuf, but it gives no details on Yusuf — although such details are readily available online.

Still, that’s further than many accounts go in the religiophobic mainstream media. An AP story the same day tells a gripping story of how some of the girls escaped their kidnappers. But beyond saying three times that the group is made of Islamic extremists, AP doesn’t dwell on reasons for Boko Haram’s violence.

Tmatt has discussed this selective blindness often on GetReligion. He recently called out the New York Times for saying Boko Haram wants to “destabilize” Nigeria without saying why it’s trying to do so.


Terry praised a previous Washington Post article for saying that Muhammad Yusuf “introduced a Taliban-inspired model of teaching that rejected Darwin, among other thinkers, in favor of so-called Koranic sciences.” The writer of the May 6 Post article should have looked it up.

Instead, Shekau is painted there as quiet and bookish, then turning “increasingly unmanageable” during battles with the Nigerian army. Yusuf is captured and dies in jail, and Shekau takes over.

He starts talking about how he enjoys killing on command from God. How did he grow such brutality? No clue. Except, just maybe, for the last paragraph:

“Why is he so violent? I think because Shekau was almost killed,” Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, told France 24. “Imagine coming back from the dead. He knows he doesn’t have a second chance if he’s caught by the security forces. … He was in the mouth of the crocodile, now he’s coming back to kill the crocodile.”

Say what? Shekau massacres the innocent as revenge on the government? Defenseless girls represent “the crocodile”? We don’t know. The reporter apparently didn’t ask.

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About Jim Davis
  • Darrell Turner

    The BBC World News had a good, detailed profile of Abubakar Shekau last year :

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18020349?print=true

    • Jim Davis

      Wow, thanks, Darrell. My own search didn’t turn that one up. Yes, the BBC story is detailed, but it shares the main weakness of the Washington Post piece. It mentions the “unifying ideology” of Boko Haram and Shekau’s “intense ideological commitment.” But what exactly is that ideology? Doesn’t say.

      • Darrell Turner

        It seems difficult to get a specific handle on his beliefs. However, as you saw, the BBC story does add these elements:

        “Mr Shekau is also the group’s spiritual leader – and, judging by video footage, he seems equally comfortable delivering sermons to his followers.

        “He has a photographic memory and is well versed in theology,” Mr Salkida said.

        He is nicknamed “Darul Tawheed”, which translates as a specialist in Tawheed. This is an orthodox doctrine of the uniqueness and oneness of Allah, which is
        the very cornerstone of Islam.

        But Nigeria’s mainstream Muslim clerics do not regard Mr Shekau as a scholar and question his understanding of Islam – and regularly condemn the bombings and
        drive-by shootings committed by his followers against anyone who disagrees with them.”


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