In Nigeria, trapped between Islamist radicals and security forces
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The armed men dragged Musa Muhammad out of his house and ordered him to lie face down on the ground. Then they grabbed his son. After asking his name, the men issued their judgment. “I heard three gunshots — pop, pop, pop,” Muhammad recalled, his voice trembling, his fingers in the shape of a pistol. “My son was dead, killed in front of me.”
His assailants were not the radical Islamists who have brutalized this town. They were government security forces sent to protect the residents.
In the epicenter of one of Africa's most violent religious extremist movements, civilians are caught in a guerrilla conflict that has shattered families and communal relationships. The Boko Haram, a homegrown group with suspected ties to al-Qaeda, is assassinating people nearly every day, targeting Christians, soldiers, police, even astrologers as it seeks to weaken the Western-allied government and install Islamic sharia law in this nation.
But the security forces have also carried out extrajudicial killings, imprisoned hundreds on flimsy grounds, looted and burned shops and houses, according to victims, local officials and human rights activists.
“We are trapped in between the Boko Haram and the security forces,” said Hauwa Yerima, a human rights activist. “Life has become so difficult for us in Maiduguri.”
She and Muhammad asked that their grandfathers’ last names be used instead of their surnames because they feared reprisals by the military or police. People here often have multiple surnames.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the security units, which are known as the Joint Military Task Force or JTF, denied the allegations. He said that soldiers follow appropriate rules of engagement and that there “has not been any established case of extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions or harassment by the JTF forces.”
This sprawling northeastern town is the birthplace and stronghold of the Boko Haram. From here, what began as a nonviolent Islamist uprising fueled by poverty, inequality and government corruption in 2002 has grown into a shadowy insurgency that U.S. and Western officials say has increasing connections to al-Qaeda affiliates. The militia has also sought to exploit long-standing tensions between Muslims and Christians in the northern part of this oil-rich nation of 160 million.
But as Boko Haram becomes more lethal, the actions by the security forces could harm their efforts to gather vital intelligence to thwart the extremists, local officials said. The group has no shortage of supporters here, even as their attacks have intensified in recent months.
“In a guerrilla war, you need the help of the local population. But the security forces are alienating the people,” said Muhammad Abdullahi, the provincial director of religious affairs. “They are making their jobs more difficult for themselves.”
Two days earlier, a soldier shot and injured one of Abdullahi’s co-workers in the abdomen as he approached a checkpoint.
On that fall afternoon in Musa Muhammad’s neighborhood, Boko Haram militants ambushed and killed two soldiers on a nearby street. The security forces flooded in, rounding up youths, searching houses and firing guns in the air. They accused residents of being Boko Haram loyalists and harboring members. After the soldiers allowed Muhammad to stand up, he saw several bodies lying near a wall, he recalled.
The corpse of his 29-year-old son, who owned a small store, had been thrown on top.
Following a government crackdown in 2009, Boko Haram clashed with security forces in Maiduguri, attacking police stations. That same year, its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in police custody, cementing the metamorphosis into a violent movement. Since 2010, the extremists have bombed churches, mosques, banks, government and U.N. buildings, and even schools, killing more than 1,500 people.
The nature of violence
The militia’s ambitions and brutality appear to be growing. Boko Haram, whose name roughly means “Western education is a sin,” killed more than 815 people in the first nine months of 2012, more than 2010 and 2011 combined, according to Human Rights Watch. The latest victims died Friday, when suspected militants attacked a village near here, killing at least 15 people, including women and children, slitting many of their throats.
Once focused on northeastern Nigeria, the group has widened its attacks across the north. Suicide bombings, a rarity in West Africa, have become more common. Among its new targets are cellphone towers and mobile phone company offices, which the militia accuses of aiding government security agencies monitoring its members.
The group also appears to be seeking a bigger role in global jihad. Last month, its leader, Abubakar Shekau, in a propaganda video shown on extremist Web sites, expressed solidarity with al-Qaeda and its affiliates and threatened the United States, which in June placed him on its list of global terrorists.
In a telephone interview, a senior Boko Haram commander said some fighters have traveled to northern Mali, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia to train in jihadist camps and then returned to Nigeria. Others have remained in those countries to fight alongside militant groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s West and North Africa affiliate and one of three groups controlling northern Mali, said the commander, who used his nom de guerre, Abu Mariam.
A more violent splinter faction has also emerged within Boko Haram this year. Known as Ansaru, its fighters recently took responsibility for the kidnapping of a French engineer this month near Nigeria’s border with Niger, where the militia has also infiltrated.
“The Muslim Ummah are unified against fighting the forces of the nonbelievers,” said Abu Mariam, using the Arabic word for “nation.” “Anytime, anywhere, if we have the opportunity to target our enemies, we will attack.”
In some villages around Maiduguri, the militants have imposed strict Islamic sharia law, residents said. They have banned smoking and alcohol, as well as playing soccer and dara, a local version of chess, deeming them un-Islamic. Women have been ordered to wear veils.
In Maiduguri, assassins on bikes and motorcycles move openly, targeting people in daylight. By 7 p.m., most streets are deserted. Residents lock themselves in, praying that neither the militants nor the security forces will turn up at their door.
Eight months ago, Boko Haram militants killed a close friend and neighbor of Babakyari Adam. They were both astrologers. “They say what we are doing is against Islam,” said Adam, 48. “They say we are sorcerers.”
He fled Maiduguri but six weeks ago returned to be with his family. Today, he rarely steps outside his house. “I am afraid the Boko Haram will come back and kill me if they know I am in town,” Adam said.
In 2011, most attacks targeted Muslims aligned with the government. But attacks against Christians have risen since January. This year, there have been at least 37 attacks against churches and 21 targeting mosques, according to a project by the think tank Council on Foreign Relations that tracks political violence in Nigeria.
Inside a desolate church, only 45 worshipers attended Christmas service. Last year, radical Islamists hurled grenades into the compound, killing a guard. In April, they murdered the reverend. Once numbering in the thousands, much of the congregation has fled Maiduguri.
The church is in a neighborhood dubbed “Tora Bora,” after Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Afghanistan, because it is a Boko Haram stronghold. On this holy day, heavily armed soldiers peered from behind sandbags, searching everyone who entered for bombs and weapons.
The Islamists have killed many of the congregants’ relatives, including the husband of Pipi Alfas’s niece. She was expecting a baby in December.
“What will a child without a father do?” Alfas asked. “We are living in fear.”
Maiduguri, like other northern areas, has experienced spasms of religious and ethnic violence over the years. But Christians and Muslims have, for the most part, coexisted peacefully here for decades. They attended the same schools. Muslims married Christians; to this day, many families are composed of followers of both religions. Today, Christians and Muslims are becoming more divided, leaders of both communities said this week.
“Nowadays, you don’t know who Boko Haram is among the people,” said Ishrah Garba, the pastor of Alfas’s church, the Church of Christ in Nigeria. “We have to be careful.”
He no longer wears his clerical collar in town, hiding his religion from assassins.
“At times, we hear them say, ‘We will kill every Christian in the area, so that the neighborhood will be ours,’ ” said Alfas, referring to her Muslim neighbors, whom she rarely speaks to anymore.
Yerima, the human rights activist, recalled how she sent food during Eid al-Adha, the Muslim religious festival, to a Christian neighbor, a ritual she has done for the past two decades. This year, the neighbor refused to accept the food.
When asked why the militia is killing Christians, Abu Mariam dismissed the question with his own.
“Why is the West killing Muslims? They have attacked Muslims in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Pakistan with drones. They are killing Muslims everywhere with drones,” he said. “Why ask about the Christians? Are they the only human beings?”
‘Who can I complain to?’
The security forces have killed almost as many people as Boko Haram has, according to Human Rights Watch. They also have detained numerous victims without charges or trials, human rights activists say.
“They are worse than the enemy,” said Murtalla Muhammed, a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri. “The whole image of the military has gone down here. They are seen as brutal.”
The victims included the brother of Umar Muhammad, a 33-year-old technician who is not related to Musa. Soldiers accused him of being part of Boko Haram and interrogated him. He had no access to a lawyer. Then, his brother said, he was beaten to death in custody.
The day after his son was killed, Musa Muhammad went to the morgue to pick up the body. One of the bullets has been shot point blank into his neck, he said.
“Who can I complain to?” Muhammad asked. “Now, we fear both Boko Haram and the security forces.”
He was too traumatized, he said, to wash his son’s body before burial as Muslim customs dictate.