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Weeks after Nigeria’s army declared him dead, Africa’s most-wanted terrorist, a fundamentalist preacher named Abubakar Shekau, appeared in an online video hurling invective at the American president and British queen.

Mr. Shekau, the 40-something-year-old figurehead of Islamic insurgency Boko Haram, wasn’t the only al Qaeda ally in Africa to return from the dead this week. On the other side of the continent, African troops had overpowered Somali jihad al-Shabaab in recent years. French troops in the Saharan netherlands of Mali had done the same this year against that region’s al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

And yet, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, killing more than 60 people. In Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had named a new leader on Monday, replacing the commander French troops killed in March. And in Nigeria, Mr. Shekau returned to one of his favorite platforms, the Internet. In August, Nigeria’s army said the preacher had likely bled to death from gunshot wounds in a northern Nigerian forest.

Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser was attempting to verify that the tape showed Mr. Shekau, not an impostor, said Fatima Akilu, director of the office’s Department of Behavioral Analysis.

Mr. Shekau has proved to be an intractable problem. Nigeria’s government has attempted peace talks with men who claim to be his associates. Nigerian agents have met these men in luxury hotels, or in desert encampments in northern Chad, said a senior security adviser. They have come back with a printout of nine demands reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, which include compensation for damaged mosques and greater application of Islamic rule.

Those overtures have failed to bear fruit.

Many officials say they suspect middlemen are exaggerating their connections to Mr. Shekau in a bid to squeeze a cut from any future peace settlement. Many doubt Mr. Shekau will compromise on anything.

“Liken him to Osama bin Laden,” said Maj. Gen. Sarkin Yaki Bello, who leads Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram. “That is the level of extremism he has reached.”

Mr. Shekau seemed to concur in his video sermon: “You can see I’m a radical!” he said, a vast grin across his face. “You should kill me!”

Nigeria’s army has tried to do exactly that. It has put much of the north under a state of emergency. The imposition allows soldiers to detain civilians and enter homes. Troops have cut cellphone service in the north and blocked major roads to travelers.

The emergency decree has devastated the local economy of petty trading and vegetable farming—but not Boko Haram. Last week, Mr. Shekau’s men set up their own roadblock, said aid groups and Nigerian soldiers, then killed at least 87 people on a northern highway. Mr. Shekau claimed responsibility for those attacks in the video, and said he had commandeered a few army vehicles during the raid.

Attacks like those have made Mr. Shekau the U.S.’s most-wanted terrorist in Africa, going by the $7 million the State Department offered in June for information leading to his capture. By comparison, the department put a $5 million reward on Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda kidnapper whose raid on a gas plant in Algeria left three Americans dead.

Boko Haram has never killed an American in all the 3,000 deaths Nigeria’s government blames on the group. Still, Mr. Shekau has directed fresh anger at the U.S. and other world powers in recent videos. In his latest video, Mr. Shekau taunted President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande and Queen Elizabeth II.

“Obama must be fuming with rage,” he chanted as his comrades cried out “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great!”

“Queen Elizabeth must be fuming with rage,” he added.

A beat later, Mr. Shekau said the same for Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died in April.

Some analysts said Mr. Shekau’s vitriol is typical of leaders of Africa’s Islamic insurgencies who seek to regain traction by whipping up passions against foreigners among followers.

“He’s making America the enemy of Boko Haram,” said Jacob Zenn, an Africa analyst at the Jamestown Foundation research institution in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Zenn mentioned a video from April, when militants used scraps of paper for shooting practice. One of those papers was labeled “Obama,” another “Kansas.”

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