Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Nigeria Claims Boko Haram Leader ‘Fatally Wounded’ in Air Raid
Wall Street Journal
Aug. 23, 2016 3:48 p.m. ET

ABUJA, Nigeria—Nigeria’s military claimed Tuesday that its airstrikes had killed several top Boko Haram commanders and “fatally wounded” the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Africa’s most populous nation for talks on counterterrorism strategy.

The military said an “unprecedented and spectacular air raid” had hit the militants as they were performing Friday prayers in the sprawling Sambisa forest, the main base for a jihadist insurgency that is estimated to have left some 20,000 people dead and one million homeless.

Mr. Shekau, who in recent months has been embroiled in a power struggle to lead the militant group, was “fatally wounded on his shoulders,” the military said.

The claims of Mr. Shekau’s demise were impossible to verify independently and left several unanswered questions, including how the severity of Mr. Shekau’s wounds were gauged.

The military has declared Mr. Shekau dead on at least three previous occasions, only for a man claiming to be the Boko Haram leader reappear on videos. The militant Islamist group had no immediate response to Tuesday’s announcement by the military.

Col. Sani Usman, an army spokesman, said there was no reason to doubt the “authentic and very clear” information.

“We have a process through which the military confirms it’s information... we’re not going to make that public because we’re in a state of war,” he said.

The report of Mr. Shekau’s alleged death came as Mr. Kerry arrived in Nigeria for meetings with President Muhammadu Buhari. In a speech in the northern city of Sokoto, the secretary didn’t mention the military’s announcement. He instead reiterated Washington’s support for Nigeria’s fight against terrorism and cautioned its leaders against collective punishment.

“It is understandable that, in the wake of terrorist activity, some are tempted to crack down on anyone and everyone who could theoretically pose some sort of threat. But extremism can’t be defeated through repression or fear,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Buhari has for months been lobbying the White House to allow Nigeria to buy a dozen A-29 Super Tucano ground attack airplanes to bolster the fight against Boko Haram. Washington blocked arms sales to Mr. Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, partly over human-rights concerns such as treatment of captured insurgents.

Boko Haram, which last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been on the defensive in recent months after President Buhari revamped the military’s counterterrorism strategy. He reshuffled top commanders, deployed more artillery and air assets, and promoted a regional coalition of five militaries to pool battlefield tactics against the jihadists.

Greater military coordination with neighboring Cameroon and Chad and help from the U.S. have pushed the jihadists to withdraw deep into the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria in recent months. Hundreds of the girls and boys the jihadists kidnapped for use as sex slaves and child soldiers have escaped.

Since Boko Haram pledged support to Islamic State last year, the group appears to have split into two main factions: one led by Mr. Shekau and another—backed by Islamic State—led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi.

Nigerian security analysts have suggested that the power struggle and recent battlefield defeats have dramatically weakened the group, making the prospect of negotiations with the government more likely.

Earlier this month Mr. Shekau’s faction called for a prisoner swap with Mr. Buhari’s government, releasing a video appearing to show some of the 276 schoolgirls they kidnapped two years ago from the remote northern town of Chibok.

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