MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — He was the quiet one who walked silently to meet fellow disciples in a house by the railroad tracks, declining to greet other men on the street. But when he became agitated — over taking up arms against the government, or about his hatred of Christians and Jews — it was no use arguing with Abubakar Shekau.
A junior disciple who did so discovered the cost: Locked in his room by Mr. Shekau for a week with no food or water in the 100-degree heat, he barely survived. And on torrid evenings here in Maiduguri, Mr. Shekau’s antigovernment harangues resounded through the dusty streets.
A decade ago, the sect did not yet call itself Boko Haram, but its ideology was as hard line then as it is now.
“He was gingering up the boys to become wild,” said Aji Modu, a producer at the state television station here, who recalled the harsh-voiced Mr. Shekau preaching near his house in the Gwange neighborhood in 2008. “ ‘The government is no longer doing anything for you,’ ” Mr. Modu recalled him saying.
After years of slaughtering civilians and setting fire to villages in rampages that had gone largely unnoticed outside Nigeria, Mr. Shekau and his fellow militants have finally caught the world’s attention by kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, 80 miles from here. The intelligence services of the United States, Britain, France and Israel have pledged their help in tracking him down, and the girls’ fate has become the focus of intense international concern.
But in a video released last week that showed the kidnapped girls for the first time, Mr. Shekau gave no sense that he feared being a hunted man, instead appearing to glory in the newfound attention.
“When we say we must obey Allah, the world must certainly change,” Mr. Shekau ranted, by turns leering and grinning in the video. “You are even saying I have departed from moral values. Do you have moral values?” he thundered in Hausa, the dominant language of Nigeria’s north.
Definitive pronouncements about the group are hazardous, since its communications with the outside world are fragmentary and its tactics and motivations remain murky. Even the group’s leadership is a mystery. The Nigerian government has claimed to have killed Mr. Shekau at least three times, although there is wide disagreement here on whether Mr. Shekau or a secret successor is in charge.
American intelligence officials say they have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the recent video or that the individual who appears in it is Mr. Shekau.
Said to be in his mid-30s to his early 40s, Mr. Shekau was born in a remote village on the border with Niger, in the neighboring state of Yobe. When he was a young boy he was taken by his father for Quranic studies to a mallam, or “learned one,” in Maiduguri, a center of Islamic teaching. “He was the most troublesome of all of his students,” the mallam’s son recalled last week, outside his one-story mud-walled house in a dense neighborhood here. “He was arguing with the mallam all the time,” said the teacher’s son, Baba Fanani.
After 11 years of study, Baba Fanani’s father told him to leave. Mr. Fanani recalled that the young Shekau was already exhibiting a drift toward militancy and aggression that troubled his teacher. And in all of those years studying, not once did the boy’s parents visit him — an abandonment that some in Maiduguri believe in part explains Mr. Shekau’s harshness.
In other respects he was a typical Quranic student — sweeping the house, for instance, of a local notable, Bulama Mali Gubio, a retired civil servant and member of a council that advises the state government here. Mr. Gubio does not believe the man in last week’s video is the one he knew many years ago.
The younger Shekau then drifted toward Mohammed Yusuf, the sect founder who was killed in police custody in 2009, during the first Boko Haram uprising. Mr. Yusuf was acquiring a reputation in Maiduguri and beyond as a firebrand Islamic preacher critical of the government and so-called Western education. He supported himself as a street-side mechanic, but his passion was Islamic militancy. Even more radical than Mr. Yusuf, in some published accounts, Mr. Shekau split from him in the early 2000s to form a sect that attacked a handful of police stations in Yobe State.
Mr. Yusuf was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, partly because of the attacks. But he had powerful connections in the state government at the time and was allowed to return. His disciples, including Mr. Shekau, benefited from the same benevolence. The group that became Boko Haram coalesced in Maiduguri in the mid-2000s; Mr. Yusuf attacked schools and the government, and Mr. Shekau, his lieutenant, amplified the message in the neighborhoods.
“He was at times preaching openly in the street,” said Mr. Modu, the television producer. “He was attacking the government, saying the government is not doing anything for you,” Mr. Modu said. “He told his followers that they should defend themselves. They were all holding sticks,” he said.
Mr. Shekau supported himself selling empty perfume and pomade bottles in the Monday Market, the largest open-air market here, said Aci Mohammed, a colleague of Mr. Modu. Quranic students would bring him the bottles, and Mr. Shekau would harangue passers-by, “always arguing with people about the Quran,” Mr. Mohammed recalled.
He was gathering a following — always dressed in white, wearing a white turban, physically fit (“agile,” Mr. Modu said) and very aggressive.
The sect gradually took over a whole section of Maiduguri near the railroad depot. Mr. Shekau lived here — a ghostly wasteland still filled with rubble and pockmarked by bullet holes nearly five years after the army assault of July 2009 — and took in disciples, along with Mr. Yusuf.
“He was very harsh as a teacher,” remembers Nuhu Mohamed, who studied under Mr. Shekau for 18 months. “He told us that in Afghanistan, the boys take up stones to propagate Islam,” said Mr. Mohamed, now a member of a vigilante group that hunts Boko Haram in the neighborhoods here. “Nobody wanted to argue with him.”
A nurse at a hospital here who saw Mr. Shekau a great deal before the summer 2009 uprising — she treated his followers, who were wounded in early skirmishes — found him menacing. “Even if you greet him he doesn’t greet you back,” the nurse said, asking not to be identified for security reasons.
“His followers, they feared him a lot,” she said. “I’ve never seen him smiling. He’s always frowning. I’ve seen him shouting and insulting his followers. He will shout at the top of his voice and insult people.” She also believes the man in last week’s video is not the one she knew in Maiduguri.
The group went underground for nearly a year after Mr. Yusuf’s death. But in June 2010, Mr. Shekau resurfaced in a video, promising new attacks. He made good on the promise, to a fault. In September of that year came thespectacular assault on the Bauchi prison in which more than 700 were freed, right under the noses of the hapless authorities. It was the prelude to a bloody and savage new war against the Nigerian state.
“Anybody, even if he is a learned Muslim teacher, if we confirm that he exposes us to the government, his children will become orphans and his wife will become a widow, in God’s name,” Mr. Shekau said after an attack on a bar here in June 2011 that killed 25 people.
For much of the last four years Boko Haram has carried out an unrelenting series of bombings, assassinations, attacks on churches and military installations, and increasingly savage and indiscriminate massacres of civilians over northern Nigeria, but concentrated here in the capital of Borno State.
Nigerian security forces have responded in kind, rounding up and killing young men accused of being Boko Haram members. Well over 4,000 have been killed, and in the first three months of this year alone, over 1,500 were killed by Boko Haram and security forces, according to Amnesty International.
It is unclear whether this savage conflict has been carried out under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. Whether or not the man in the video is Mr. Shekau, he appeared to be just as moved by violence as the man remembered here. “Yusuf was afraid of him,” Mr. Gubio recalled. “He was very dangerous. He was the one who motivated those boys to fight.”