SPECIAL REPORT: Boko Haram: between rebellion and jihad
Tue Jan 31, 2012 3:37pm GMT
By Joe Brock
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - At about 10.40 one morning last August,
Mohammed Abul Barra rammed his ash-coloured station wagon into a security
gate outside the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja,
knocking it off its hinges. Barra's 1996 Honda Accord then crashed through
the main building's glass doors and slammed against the reception desk.
On security tapes of the incident seen by Reuters, a guard peers into the
car, evidently unaware that it is packed with explosives. The grainy footage
shows a dozen or so people in the reception edge towards the vehicle. Over
10 seconds pass in confusion before one man seemingly realises what is about
to happen. He grabs the person next to him and darts towards the lift. But
it's too late. Barra steadies himself, leans forward and the security
screens blur into white fuzz.
The suicide strike left 25 people dead and the U.N. headquarters in tatters.
It also drew global attention to Boko Haram, the militant group from
northern Nigeria which has claimed responsibility for the attack and a
string of bombings since then that has killed hundreds.
As the bombings have grown in frequency in recent months, the Nigerian
government and Western security officials have begun to grapple with the
exact nature of the threat. Is Boko Haram just the latest in a long list of
violent spasms in Nigeria, or is it the next battalion of global jihadists,
capable of thrusting Africa's most populous nation into civil war?
The answer to that is not simple. There is evidence - some of it detailed in
this story for the first time - that elements of Boko Haram have received
training from foreign militant groups, including North Africa-based al Qaeda
in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The August attack was far more sophisticated
than anything linked to Boko Haram before.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan calls the group a terrorist
organisation with global ambitions. In an interview in his presidential
villa last week, Jonathan said there was "no doubt" Boko Haram has links
with jihadist groups outside Nigeria. General Carter Ham, the head of the
U.S. military's Africa Command, said last year Boko Haram posed a threat to
U.S. and Western interests.
At the same time, Boko Haram remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian
issues. When its secretive spokesman claims responsibility for attacks, he
almost always lists local grievances that have little to do with the core
ideologies of al Qaeda. The group's name means "Western education is sinful"
in Hausa, the language spoken in northern Nigeria, the country's Muslim
heartland. But its anger is directed not at America or Europe but at
Nigeria's elites: at their perceived arrogance, their failure to deliver
services, and the brutality of their security forces. Many Boko Haram
members say their focus is on targeting officials who have locked up its
members or misused state funds.
Even Nigeria's national security adviser, General Owoye Azazi, who sees a
link between Boko Haram and AQIM, urges caution in defining the group.
"We need to tackle Boko Haram from several perspectives," Azazi said in an
interview. "If you go back to history, there are religious concerns, there
are concerns about governance, and of course, political implications. It's a
combination of so many things."
U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived in Abuja within days of
last August's attack to help with forensic analysis of the bomb site. A
report authored by those agents, Nigerian authorities and independent
security teams, paints a portrait of a sophisticated operation.
Barra was chosen because he was "low profile (and) well trained" and his
attack was "well planned", says the confidential report, seen by Reuters.
The car was packed with 125 kg (276 pounds) of manufactured explosives,
including the plastic explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and
triacetone triperoxide (TATP) - both highly powerful and volatile, and more
potent than easier-to-build fertiliser-based explosives.
The explosives were used in a "shaped charge", which increases damage from a
blast. Investigators believe the bomb probably consisted of both stolen
factory-made explosives and home-made materials.
"The only form of PETN that is commonly available is the core explosive in
detonating cord," said Sidney Alford, a British explosives expert. "You can
get detonating cord from the manufacturers, the army, or from blasting
contractors in the demolition or quarrying industries."
The failed 'underpants' bomber Faroup Abdulmutallan, a Nigerian accused of
trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 in an al
Qaeda-style attack, used TATP. Another would-be plane bomber, Richard Reid,
had PETN in his shoe in his unsuccessful effort to blow up a flight between
France and the United States in 2001.
President Jonathan said Nigeria has evidence that Boko Haram members have
held meetings in North Africa. Azazi, the national security adviser, said
the advancement in Boko Haram's weaponry and tactics points to help and
training from outside groups.
"We have evidence of meetings between Boko Haram leadership and outside
groups," Azazi said, declining to give details. "We have evidence that some
Boko Haram leaders are trained outside of Nigeria. Their methods, their
bomb-making technologies - who taught them?"
Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, survived a brutal civil war in the late
1960s in which more than 1 million people died. Repeated rounds of violence
since then, often between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south,
have killed thousands more.
The violent spasms are often fueled by politics, and so it is with Boko
The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad,
meaning "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and
Jihad." It earned its nickname from the teachings of its founder Mohammed
Yusuf in the early 2000s, in the restive northeastern city of Maiduguri, the
capital of Borno state.
Yusuf argued that Western education, or "boko", had brought nothing but
poverty and suffering to the region and was therefore forbidden, or "haram",
in Islam. He began peacefully - mostly preaching - and quickly gained a
following among disaffected young men in the northeast. But his
anti-establishment rhetoric and hints that Boko Haram was building an
arsenal of weapons also caught the attention of the authorities.
In 2009, the police clamped down on sect members who were ignoring a law
requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. That sparked a furious backlash.
Police stations and government offices in Borno were burned to the ground,
and hundreds of criminals released in a prison break, as the violence spread
across northern Nigeria.
The government and army reacted with force; Yusuf was captured and shot dead
in police custody. Five days of fighting left some 800 people dead.
Boko Haram leaders still cite Yusuf's death as one of the main factors
driving the insurgency. The group remains fiercely anti-government and
anti-authority, and resentful of the decades of corrupt, poor governance
that have impoverished its home region.
"You would never have believed the Boko Haram phenomenon came from these
beginnings," said Shettima Dikwa, a doctor at the University of Maiduguri.
Dikwa is one of a number of professionals in the city frustrated at the way
Nigeria's government and military have allowed the insurgency to escalate.
Like others, he says local politicians sponsored armed thugs to help disrupt
the 2007 election and then abandoned them, creating a fertile recruitment
field. The governor of Borno state has denied these allegations.
Boko Haram's attacks have intensified since President Jonathan took power
last April, in the country's cleanest election since the end of military
rule in 1999. Jonathan pledged to fight graft and attract investment. But he
is a Christian southerner, and in the eyes of many Muslim northerners it was
a northerner's turn to rule.
CATCH-ALL LABEL, LOCAL STRUGGLES
That backdrop doesn't explain how the group went from drive-by shootings and
crude petrol bombs to shaping explosives for suicide missions against the
A video posted on YouTube on January 11 suggests the group's leadership
would like to be seen as part of a global jihad. Abubakar Shekau, who has
run the group since Yusuf was killed, appears in the 15-minute tape wearing
a camouflage bullet-proof jacket, sitting in front of two Kalashnikov
rifles. His beard, headscarf and hand gestures recall the style of video
pronouncements made by the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But
Shekau's message hits local notes.
"The reason why I am giving this broadcast is the recent comments of
Goodluck Jonathan about us and that of the leader of the Christians and
other statements by others, describing us as a cancer to Nigeria. We are
neither a cancer nor a disease. If people don't know us, God knows us,"
Shekau says. He then goes on to cite common complaints about Nigerian
Most of the public evidence about what Boko Haram wants and how it operates
comes from its avowed spokesman, Abu Qaqa, a mysterious figure who often
pops up after an attack to claim responsibility and explain the motives.
Speaking by phone to a handful of reporters in Maiduguri in November, Abu
Qaqa spoke of the links between al Qaeda and Boko Haram. "We are together
with al Qaeda," he said. "They are promoting the cause of Islam, just as we
are doing. Therefore they help us in our struggle and we help them, too."
But Qaqa offered no concrete details of those ties; the rest of the
conversation focused on local issues. He said the group isn't affiliated
with Nigerian political parties and described the sect's anger at the
governor of Borno state. In claiming the recent Kano attacks, which killed
at least 186 people, he cited the killing and arbitrary arrest and detention
of Boko Haram members.
GLOBAL OR LOCAL?
Nigerian and Western security experts believe a small, increasingly
ambitious and sophisticated group of extremists controls the very top of the
group. A handful of those members have received training outside Nigeria,
including from AQIM.
Nigeria-based security sources who track Boko Haram told Reuters that
members of the group have been going to training camps with brigades of
Algerian AQIM for the past six years. Small units of five or six members
train at a time; no more than a few dozen have been trained in total, the
The foreign minister of neighbouring Niger told Reuters last week that
members of Boko Haram received explosives training at AQIM camps in the
Sahel region, which runs along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The
U.N. Security Council said this month that it had been told that Boko Haram
members had received training in AQIM camps in Mali.
Experts say the group has become a convenient cover for opportunists.
Criminals, political thugs and gangs hide beneath the umbrella of Boko
Haram, making it hard to judge its size and scope.
Most of its foot-soldiers are disillusioned young men who have only loose
ties to religious ideology, and are easily drawn in because there are little
or no opportunities elsewhere. Jonathan has begun to acknowledge this,
telling Reuters last week that the government would "revitalise" northern
agriculture to provide jobs for youths who might otherwise be "recruited" by
Aisha Alkali, a human rights campaigner in Maiduguri, says young men in
northern Nigeria feel forced to adopt violence to defend themselves. "If you
push people to the wall, if you leave them with nothing and take everything,
where will they go?" asks Alkali, shrouded in a traditional black abaya and
burka with only her eyes and impeccably manicured hands showing. "You make
people something they were not."
Soldiers patrol the streets of Maiduguri in large numbers these days. By
day, they hunch in roadside bunkers; at night, they regularly fight with
Boko Haram units. Bomb blasts and gunshots punctuate the dark.
Amnesty International says the joint military task force (JTF) in the city
has been behind dozens of unlawful killings there, further stirring the
unrest. A report by the human rights watchdog says houses have been raided
and burned by the JTF.
One of the JTF commanders in Maiduguri told Reuters there had been
"excesses", but said mostly the military were doing a good job under
Yirami Bwala, a 42-year-old shop owner, lost his 18-year-old son Markus in a
Boko Haram bomb attack in Maiduguri in January. "Most Boko Haram members are
just a bunch of illiterates who have been misled about their religion and
what tolerance is all about," he said a day after the attack. "The military
only make things worse by robbing people and attacking innocent, peaceful
More than a quarter of Nigeria's 2012 budget has been allocated to security
spending. But with the number of attacks up - at least 250 people have been
killed in the first three weeks of 2012 alone, according to Human Rights
Watch - criticism of the way Jonathan has handled the violence is growing.
President Jonathan told Reuters that Boko Haram militants have infiltrated
the military, police and his own government. He sacked the chief of police
and his six deputies last week, after the key suspect in the Christmas Day
bombings escaped less than 24 hours after being arrested, in what Nigerian
security sources said were "unusual and suspicious" circumstances.
The leader of the nation of 160 million people has also said that tackling
Boko Haram could be worse than Nigeria's civil war, if only because the
enemy is faceless and unknown. Some analysts believe Boko Haram may be
targeting Christians to trigger a religious conflict.
Nigeria has been here before. In 2009 it ended a militant insurgency in the
southeastern Niger Delta by offering an amnesty. The government hints that a
new broad political settlement may be on the cards. But dealing with a
splintered and secretive group like Boko Haram will be difficult.
Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president and a southern Christian, visited the
family of Boko Haram founder Yusuf last September for peace talks. Days
later, gunmen killed Yusuf's brother-in-law. Boko Haram denied involvement
in the killing. But someone wanted the dialogue to end.
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Tue Jan 31 2012 - 17:44:39 EST