Boko Haram Leader 'On the Run Disguised As a Woman' Claims Nigerian Army

The head of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram is on the run disguised as a woman, the army has claimed. The militants' leader is said to be wearing a hijab, a garment that covers head and chest typically worn by some Muslim women in public, to conceal his identity.

Boko Haram has waged a war against the Nigerian government for nearly a decade, and its violent insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people since 2009.

The military, which has often declared victory over the group, has now claimed Abubakar Shekau abandoned members of the group because he could no longer "bear the heat" due to the army's operation against the insurgents.

"He is desperately trying to escape the theater disguised as a woman dressed in hijab. We reliably gathered that to avoid detection Abubakar Shekau alternates between blue and black colored hijabs. He was last seen in a black hijab," Brigadier-General SK Usman, Army Director of Public Relations, was quoted by Nigerian media as saying.

He then added that troops involved in counter-terrorism Operation Lafiya Dole have continued to recapture territories and rescue civilians held hostage by the group.

"The terrorists are in disarray and scampering for safety while others were surrendering," he said.

The army called on the public to help authorities with information on Shekau's whereabouts.

Abubakar Shekau
A poster displayed along the road shows photograph of Imam Abubakar Shekau, leader of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, declared wanted by the Nigerian military with $320,471 reward for information that could lead to his capture in northeastern Nigeria town of Maiduguri May 1, 2013.The military, which has often declared victory over Boko Haram, has now claimed Shekau abandoned members of the group because he could no longer "bear the heat" due to the army's operation against the insurgents. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Fight against Boko Haram

Boko Haram used to control territory the size of Belgium. However, Nigeria's ongoing military operation, Lafiya Dole, and a regional offensive—consisting of 8,700 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin—have scored some successes, with soldiers recapturing key territories and releasing thousands of civilians held captive by the group.

In spite of the military's successes against the group, the fight against Boko Haram is not over, however.

The group reportedly killed three people in Adamawa state on January 16, just days after it was blamed for the death of at least 20 loggers in Borno.

The same day the suspects were freed, Boko Haram released a video purportedly showing some schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014. After four years of captivity, some of the girls said in the video that they did not want to go back home.

The footage, obtained by Sahara Reporters, also showed Shekau refuting claims by officials that he had been wounded in battle.

The Nigerian government and army have often affirmed the fight against the group was over, only to have their claims dismissed by the group through videos or attacks.

Nigeria's President Muhammad Buhari, who has vowed his administration would finally defeat the terrorists, said in January that Nigeria "had beaten the group". Similarly to previous instances, Shekau dismissed the claim.

"The focus of the Nigerian army should shift from trying but failing to convince the people that they have killed, injured or captured Shekau," counter-terrorism expert Davdi Otto told Newsweek.

"Even if Shekau is killed or captured, it does not mean Boko Haram will stop. If the army begins to earn people's trust so that they feel confident to share information without fear of reprisal attacks from Boko Haram, the group's activities will die a natural death and even if the evasive leader Shekau decides to disguise in a Hijab, he won't be able to hide for long.

"This is not the time to announce the demise of the group. It is rather key for the Nigerian government and the world coalition to keep a closer watch on a possible resurgence of a stronger and more united Boko Haram," Otto continued.

Boko Haram, allied with the Islamic State militant group, is today divided. The fraction occurred after ISIS replaced Shekau as leader with Abu Musab Al Barnawi, a former Boko Haram spokesperson.

Although split into at least two factions today, Boko Haram has continued its violent war to establish an Islamic state.

The Nigerian government stepped up de-radicalization efforts for militants willing to abandon the group in 2016.

Last year, more than 800 Boko Haram fighters participated in the de-radicalization program under the Safe Corridor Initiative, according to Nigeria's defense chief Gen. Gabriel Olonisakin.