Meet the Leader of Boko Haram

Abubakar ShekauHe is the face of terror. A ruthless leader with a twisted ideology. And the sadistic architect of a campaign of mayhem and misery.

And yet, very little is known about Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram.

He operates in the shadows, leaving his underlings to orchestrate his repulsive mandates. He resurfaces every once in a while in videotaped messages to mock the impotence of the Nigerian military. And he uses his faith to recruit the impressionable and the disenfranchised to his cause.

He’s a religious scholar

Shekau was born in Shekau village that borders Niger. He studied under a cleric and then attended Borno State College of Legal and Islamic Studies for higher studies on Islam.

That’s why he’s also known as ‘Darul Tawheed,’ which translates to an expert in monotheism, or the oneness of Allah.

He’s a polyglot

He speaks several languages fluently: Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri and Arabic. But English isn’t one of them. After all, he heads a group that rejects all things Western.

He’s elusive

Even his age is unknown — estimates range between 38 and 49.

The U.S. State Department has Shekau’s year of birth listed as 1965, 1969 and 1975.

abubakar Shekau1He’s a loner

Analysts describe Shekau as a loner and a master of disguise. He does not speak directly with members, opting to communicate through a few select confidants.

He uses many aliases: Abu Bakr Skikwa, Imam Abu Bakr Shiku and Abu Muhammad Abu Bakr Bin Muhammad Al Shakwi Al Muslimi Bishku among them.

He was an unruly No. 2

Boko Haram was founded by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic, well-educated cleric who drove a Mercedes as part of his push for a pure Islamic state in Nigeria. He wasn’t too effective as a leader and had a hard time keeping his second-in-command in check. Shekau was more radical and had grander designs.

… And merciless as No. 1

Mohammed Yusuf was killed in a security crackdown in 2009, along with about 700 of his followers. That left Shekau in charge. He vowed to strike back, and his group has spared no one: government workers, police officers, journalists, villagers, students and churchgoers. Human Rights Watch estimates that in the past five years, more than 3,000 people have been killed.

He’s come back from the dead

The Nigerian military has touted Shekau’s death several times, only to retract its claim after he appeared alive and vibrant in propaganda videos.

They almost got him in September 2012 when they raided his home, where he had snuck in for his six-day-old baby’s naming ceremony, according to the International Crisis Group. He managed to get away with a gunshot wound to the leg; his wife and three children were taken by the military.

ShekauHe uses Islam to recruit and radicalize

The northeast, where Boko Haram has been most active, is economically depressed and among the least educated regions in Nigeria. Shekau has done a good job of convincing residents that the powers in Abuja are corrupt and a better system of government would be a strict enforcement of Islamic Sharia law across Nigeria. And his promise, coupled with a weapon and a license to plunder, has been enticing to hundreds of young men.

… and the government’s response isn’t helping

The central government’s heavy-handed and frequently untargeted anti-terrorism campaign has just helped create more members to sustain Boko Haram. The country’s own Human Rights Commission last year accused the military of arbitrary killings, torture and rape in its campaign against the group. This makes for fertile territory for Boko Haram.

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