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If the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram has a new leader, where is Abubakar Shekau?

If the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram has a new leader, where is Abubakar Shekau?
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)

The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram says it has a new leader, leaving a question: What has happened to Abubakar Shekau, the terrorist leader who earned global notoriety in 2014 when he laughed and threatened to sell more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls as slaves?

Shekau was last heard of in March, when he appeared in a blurry video looking weak and defeated, saying, "For me the end has come." He wore a turban and sat slumped with an AK-47 propped against his body, a far cry from the boastful and belligerent figure he cut in earlier videos.

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Some interpreted Shekau's March video as a sign he was dying. Others saw it as a surrender, a view repudiated in a statement from the group in April, affirming that Shekau remained leader.

But now the leader is Abu Musab Barnawi, former spokesman for the group, and his new role was announced Wednesday. Little is known of Barnawi, who was interviewed in the Islamic State newsletter, Al Naba, which made no mention of Shekau's fate.

Shekau declared a caliphate in 2014 and pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year. He has been declared dead by Nigerian authorities several times, only to resurface.

But Boko Haram, which once controlled vast swaths of northern Nigeria, has lost most of its territory in recent months. The group calls itself Islamic State West African Province, but Nigerians nicknamed it Boko Haram — "Western education is a sin" — a reference to its strict ideology.

A multinational force of Nigerian, Chadian, Cameroonian and Nigerian troops announced last week 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.

A spokesman for the multinational force, Col. Muhammad Dole of Nigeria, said terrorists were disguising themselves as civilians and fleeing. He called on residents to report any suspicious new arrivals.

In recent days, Nigeria's military has published photographs of the corpses of men it describes as "Boko Haram terrorists."

The Nigerian army Wednesday announced the capture of "high profile terrorist," Mohammed Mohammed Zauro at Sabon Gari village in Borno state. It published photographs of Zauro and another terrorism suspect, Lawal Aboi, both of them clad in civilian clothing, not the camouflage and black turbans the group often wears.

The statement said Zauro was trying to flee to Kebbi state in northwest Nigeria using a fake ID card and that Aboi claimed he was planning to surrender.

Nigerian forces have freed thousands of people, including women and children, from Boko Haram's control in recent months. Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters, many of them facing severe hunger, have surrendered, according to Nigeria's military.

In Boko Haram's heyday two years ago, its fighters launched mass attacks on villages and towns, driving SUVs, motorcycles and even tanks, killing thousands of people. The Nigerian military Tuesday published photographs of the bicycles that it said militants were using to flee.

Boko Haram is still able to launch attacks, however, and last week ambushed a humanitarian convoy under military escort, wounding two soldiers and three civilians. As a result, the United Nations announced it was suspending humanitarian convoys to remote areas of Borno state, despite a hunger crisis caused by the conflict. Farmers have been unable to plant crops for fear of attack, and trucks transporting food and other goods have faced ambush.

According to UNICEF, 244,000 people in Borno state are facing severe malnutrition, and 2 million people are in need of food aid.

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UPDATES:

1:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 7:45 a.m.

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