The US government has told Islamic State-affiliated fighters in Nigeria they are not eligible for a reward following reports that the leader of Boko Haram had died during clashes in a forest in the north-east.
The US state department had offered $7m (£4.9m) for information about the identity or location of Abubakar Shekau as part of its global counter-terrorism rewards programme aimed at tracking down leading violent extremists and other fugitives.
It is thought that Shekau either killed or badly injured himself on Wednesday by detonating explosives strapped around his waist to escape capture by fighters from Isis’s West Africa Province, known as Iswap, which had stormed his stronghold in the vast Sambisa Forest.
“News reports today indicate that Boko Haram terrorist Abubakar Shekau blew himself up in a confrontation with Isis affiliates,” the state department tweeted on Thursday night. “Hey, Isis guys. To clarify: no – you are not eligible for the reward for information on his identity or location. That’s not how the program works.”
Though tongue-in-cheek, the state department tweet underlines the failure of Nigerian and international efforts to get to grip with the violence in the country.
Iswap and Boko Haram have clashed repeatedly over recent years, in a bitter rivalry driven by competition among leaders and arguments over strategy. Though Nigeria’s intelligence services and military have reported Shekau’s death many times before, this is the first time his killing has been attributed to other extremists.
Communications intercepts of conversations between Iswap commanders appear to support the claims that he was killed.
Shekau’s abduction of 300 female students from a college in 2014 prompted a global social media campaign for their release and led to new international support for Nigeria’s faltering efforts to end Boko Haram’s brutal insurgency.
But neither the multimillion-dollar task force assembled by the international community nor the reinforced Nigerian army and security services have been able to find Shekau, much less kill him.
Shekau was on the third tier of rewards offered by the US Department of Justice programme, behind top al-Qaida and Isis leaders. Information on the location of Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, the leader of Isis, and Saif al-Adel, a senior al-Qaida leader tipped as a potential head of the group, is worth $10m. For Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida, $25m is offered.
The offensive against Boko Haram by Iswap began earlier this year but was paused during Ramadan. There appears to have been little resistance as the group moved into the Sambisa Forest, a vast tract of bush and woodland and a longtime stronghold of Boko Haram.
According to one account of the attack on Sambisa Forest, Iswap fighters in pickup trucks equipped with heavy weapons inflicted significant casualties, cornered Shekau and ordered him swear a bayat – a traditional oath of allegiance – to their own leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
However other accounts described Shekau as fatally wounded after detonating explosives to avoid capture.
Nigeria’s army has said it is investigating the reports.
Iswap has proved the more capable and disciplined force in recent years, carrying out complex attacks on the military and overrunning army bases.
Shekau took over Boko Haram, formally known as the Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, after its founder Muhammad Yusuf was killed by police in 2009.
Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram turned large swathes of the north-east into a no-go territory, proclaiming a “caliphate” in the Borno town of Gwoza in 2014.
Angered by Shekau’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the use of women and children as suicide bombers, a rival faction broke away in 2016, and with the backing of Isis formed Iswap.
More than 40,000 people have been killed and over 2 million displaced from their homes by the conflict in north-east Nigeria, and fighting has spread to parts of neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.