Abubakar Shekau, of the radical Nigerian Islamic sect Boko Haram — the man who has claimed responsibility for abducting schoolgirls in the town of Chibok — is, in a loose sense, a leader of a guerrilla group with limited hierarchy and several factions.

Western media have taken to calling him “shadowy,” but he is the only recognizable face of Boko Haram outside northern Nigeria and expands on his infamy by releasing videos in English in which he talks of his murderous intent.

He is the man who cheated death — the authorities have claimed several times that he has been killed — and he has been injured by Nigerian forces, shot in the thigh in 2009 and shot again in 2012 when he tried to attend a ceremony to mark the birth of his baby.

But Shekau has always resurfaced to mock the Nigerian authorities and issue video statements: one in 2010 expressing solidarity with al-Qaida in Iraq; last year when he announced that Boko Haram would start kidnapping girls in retaliation for Nigerian security forces detaining the wives and children of Boko Haram members; and then last week when he described the missing Chibok girls as “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market.”

“Western education should fold up. I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of 9.”

The Nigerian authorities detained Shekau’s own wife and three children, but it is not clear if they are still in custody. He is said to have married one of the four wives of his predecessor, Boko Haram’s more charismatic university-educated leader, the preacher Mohammed Yusef, whom he met through a mutual friend.

Yusef was captured and executed — without trial — along with around 700 of his supporters in July 2009 after an armed rebellion against police. He had originally made political connections to promote his demand for Shariah law in northern Nigeria, but claimed to have been let down by false promises. The more he spoke out against corruption, the more his popularity grew in a region beset with poverty and seeing a Muslim revival.

The violence has escalated rapidly since his death, whether in retaliation for Yusef’s “martyrdom” or as a result of Shekau taking up power is unclear, but since 2010 Boko Haram has changed into a pure terrorist organization with networks expanding into Cameroon and Niger.

Once heavily linked to failed governance and corruption, poverty and rising social inequality, the group under Shekau has shifted from targeting security forces and politicians to ordinary civilians, religious leaders, the U.N. and schoolchildren.

Shekau is believed to have been behind the 2011 bombing of the U.N. compound in Abuja that killed at least 21 and several firebomb attacks on schools where children fleeing the fires were picked off by his gunmen. But his message — that the Nigerian government doesn’t care and that Shariah law is the answer — is enticing hundreds of young men even as the security forces blunder in their response to the threat. Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission has accused the military of killings, torture and rape in its campaign against insurgents.

Born on the border of Nigeria and Niger, Shekau claims to be, like Yusef, a spiritual theologian. He uses the nickname Darul Tawheed, which means a specialist in the Islamic concept of oneness with Allah, but it is a claim that is disputed — as is his age, which the U.S. put at between 34 and 43 when it placed a $8.4 million bounty on his head last year.

Nigeria’s mainstream Muslim clerics do not regard Shekau as a scholar and question his understanding of Islam, condemning the violence of which he boasts. “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill,” Shekau said in the video after one of Boko Haram’s deadliest attacks, in January 2012, killing more than 180 people in Kano.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.