THE death of Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau could spark a bloody ISIS uprising in west Africa, experts fear.
Shekau is said to have blown himself up as he was hunted down by rival terror group Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap), which is now poised to dominate the region.
Iswap claimed they had orders to kill Shekau from ISIS commanders in the Middle East, who were concerned at his indiscriminate killing of Muslims.
They raided his forest lair in Nigeria last month, reportedly inflicting heavy casualties with weapons mounted on pickup trucks.
Iswap leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi claimed Shekau hid in the bush for five days, then refused an offer of surrender.
The reported death of the world's longest serving terrorist leader – who was once rejected by ISIS for being too radical – leaves a vacuum which could spark yet more bloodshed, analysts say.
"There's division among Shekau's followers about whether to join Iswap now or fight Iswap," Jacob Zenn, editor of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, told the BBC.
"There was never a plan for the dictator of the group meeting his demise. It appears there will now be a chaotic period."
Reports claim some Boko members have disbanded or switched allegiance, but at least one faction is staying loyal to the late leader.
Experts say they could join forces with other Islamist groups and wage renewed war against Iswap – with millions of civilians caught in the middle.
But Iswap is likely to be wooing Shekau's fighters to join them, which would give a major boost to ISIS as it spreads its tentacles further across Africa.
ISIS-linked groups butchered hundreds in a series of atrocities in Mozambique earlier this year, and 160 died in a massacre in Burkina Faso on Saturday.
The terror network already has branches operating in Tunisia and Libya and across the Sahel region including Mali and Chad.
If the West African branch can absorb Boko Haram's fighters and territory, Nigeria and its neighbours face a more unified jihadist force, analysts say.
It could even cut off roads to and from the Borno state capital Maiduguri, said Peccavi Consulting, a risk group specialising in Africa.
"If Iswap convinces Shekau's forces to join them, they will be controlling the majority of the enemy forces as well as having a presence in most of the ungoverned spaces in the northeast," it said in a note.
But another security source said: "It may not be over yet. Iswap will have to subdue or convince these camps to coalesce into its fold to fully consolidate its control."
Boko Haram was once allied to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and pledged to establish a Caliphate under Sharia law.
Led by Shekau, it staged bombings and prison breaks, overran towns, and became notorious around the world for kidnapping hundred of schoolgirls.
His reign of terror left at least 40,000 dead and two million people were forced to flee their homes as violence spilled into neighbouring Chad and Niger.
But Iswap split from Shekau's men in 2016, reportedly with the backing of ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria.
Baghdadi is said to have been disturbed by Shekau's attacks on civilians and his use of women and even babies as suicide bombers.
In recent years Iswap has overtaken Boko Haram as the most formidable terror group in Nigeria's northern badlands, analysts say.
Its disciplined fighters have launched a series of successful attacks on the Nigerian army and overrun military bases.
Iswap's dominance was highlighted by the ease with which it hunted down Shekau, one of the world's most wanted men with a £5million bounty on his head.
Militants reportedly met little resistance as they stormed his headquarters in Sambisa forest around May 18.
Shekau was chased through the bush for five days and blew himself up rather than surrender, according to Iswap's handpicked leader Barnawi.
In a recording obtained by Reuters, Barnawi told followers he was ordered to kill Shekau by the new global leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
Who are Boko Haram?
Boko Haram believe in a very strict version of Salafi and Wahabi Islam which forbids, or makes “haram”, the taking part in anything associated with Western culture.
Their wide ranging and deeply conservative interpretation of this bars voting in elections, receiving a secular education or even wearing shirts and trousers.
They believe their native Nigeria is run by infidels even when the country elects Muslim presidents.
Boko Haram's goal is the overthrow of the Nigerian state and running the country according to their twisted world view.
The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad".
But locals in the city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters took to calling it Boko Haram.
The loose translation from the language of the region is "Western education is forbidden".
He said: “This was someone who committed unimaginable terrorism and atrocities. For how long has he been leading people astray? How many times has he destroyed and abused people?
"When it was time, Allah set out brave soldiers after receiving orders from the leader of the believers.”
Barnawi said Shekau was offered the chance to repent and join Iswap but decided to take his own life.
He told followers: "Shekau preferred to be humiliated in the hereafter to getting humiliated on Earth. He killed himself instantly by detonating an explosive."
It embarrassed the Nigerian army, which has spent a decade trying to capture him backed by international security forces and millions of dollars.
The US State Department warned Barnawi's jihadis not to try to claim the $7million bounty for killing the Boko warlord.
It tweeted: “Hey, Isis guys. To clarify: no – you are not eligible for the reward for information on his identity or location. That’s not how the program works.”
Shekau, who led Boko Haram since 2009, has been reported dead four times before after air raids by Nigeria's armed forces.
But each time he has popped up in a new video to taunt authorities.
Boko Haram has not yet officially commented on the death of its leader while the Nigerian army said it was investigating the claim.
In December, his group claimed responsibility for kidnapping more than 300 boys from a school in Nigeria’s northwest region.
Shekau unleashed a posse of gun-toting, motorbike-riding jihadis who stormed the secondary school in Kankara.
The group was also behind the 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 girls from the northern town of Chibok, which sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign backed by then US First Lady Michelle Obama.
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