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Abubakar Shekau says he's 'still in charge' of Boko Haram, rejecting successor named by Islamic State

Abubakar Shekau says he's 'still in charge' of Boko Haram, rejecting successor named by Islamic State
Long-time Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, shown in an image from a 2014 video, was said in an Islamic State announcement to have been replaced. (Associated Press)

Abubakar Shekau, the Nigerian terrorist responsible for the 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls, has resurfaced a day after a rival figure was named as Boko Haram leader by Islamic State.

Shekau claims he still heads the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, which last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State and renamed itself Islamic State West Africa Province.

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"We are still around," Shekau said in an audio message published online Thursday. "We are sending this message for the world to know that we are still very much alive and still in charge."

In its Arabic newsletter, Al Naba, Islamic State on Wednesday referred to Abu Musab Barnawi as Boko Haram's leader, raising speculation that Shekau might be sick, dead or weakened.

Thursday's comments from Shekau were his first public remarks in more than a year. In his last video appearance on YouTube, he looked frail and said his time was coming to an end.

According to a translation of his remarks Thursday by Associated Press, he said, "Today, I woke up to see one who is an infidel whom they want me to follow. No, I won't."

Shekau added, "We cannot subject ourselves to people who are in ignorance of all holy books and teachings."

The audio opened the most public rift yet seen in the Nigerian terror group, whose nickname, Boko Haram, means "Western education is a sin," a reference to its opposition to all aspects of secular life, including education, democracy, tax and banking.

Tellingly, Shekau no longer used the name Islamic State West Africa Province for his group in the statement, but referred to it by its former name, Jama'atu Ahlissunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad.

Shekau said he had been deceived, and found himself forced to follow an infidel — his description of Barnawi.

He said Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, had ignored reports from Shekau's faction that Barnawi was a "polytheist" or infidel who worships more than one god, an offence in Islamic law.

Boko Haram, which has waged a 13-year rebellion to impose an Islamic state, has always been a group of shadowy splintered militias whose alliances ebb and flow.

But Shekau's comments suggest that his faction has lost its connection with Islamic State, usurped by a faction associated with Barnawi.

Shekau has been declared dead by Nigerian authorities several times. He declared a caliphate in 2014, when Boko Haram overran much of the north of the country, sweeping into towns and villages on motorcycles, SUVs and tanks, burning down businesses and killing hundreds of people at a time.

He pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year, a move the Islamist militant group celebrated on Twitter, with Boko Haram seen as the group's most hefty foreign ally. But since then, the group has lost the vast swath of territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria.

Nigeria's military has lately been claiming successive victories against Boko Haram, posting photographs of the group's leaders it says it has killed or arrested.

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A multinational force of Nigerian, Chadian, Cameroonian and Nigerien troops announced last week that it had taken control of Damasak, near the border of Niger, the last town in northeastern Nigeria controlled by the group, and had cleared fighters from surrounding villages. Damasak was seized by Boko Haram in 2014.

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UPDATES:

12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 10:30 a.m.

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