World

Radical Muslim sect again stalks northern Nigeria

In the dusty streets of northeastern Nigeria, far from the battlegrounds of Afghanistan, a group known as the Nigerian Taliban is waging war against a government it refuses to recognize.

The radical Muslim sect called Boko Haram was thought to be vanquished in 2009, when Nigeria's military crushed its mosque into concrete shards, and its leader was arrested and died in police custody. But now, a year later, Maiduguri and surrounding villages again live in fear of the group, whose members have assassinated police and local leaders and engineered a massive prison break, officials say.

Western diplomats are concerned that the sect is catching the attention of al-Qaida's north Africa branch. They also worry that Boko Haram represents chaos and disintregation in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the United States.

"It is possible that Nigeria could be a future Pakistan," a leaked cable released by the WikiLeaks website quotes U.S. Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnnie Carson as saying earlier this year. "In 25 years, there could be impoverished masses, a wealthy elite and radicalism in the north. The question is whether the oil wells will be dry as well."

The cable later adds: "Nigeria is at a critical financial and political threshold and the entire nation could possibly tip backwards permanently."

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Maiduguri sits in the upper northeast reaches of Nigeria, about 1,040 miles (1,675 kilometers) away from the country's commercial capital and seaport of Lagos. There, the sun rises as early as 6 a.m., quickly scorching the dusty streets and lands slowly being taken over by the growing Sahara Desert.

It was here a decade ago where Mohammed Yusuf, a one-time moderate imam, began preaching against the practices of Western education in life across Nigeria's Muslim north. Boko Haram was a constant refrain in the Hausa-language sermons, meaning "Western education is sacrilege."

Yusuf's words came at a time when about a dozen northern states adopted Islamic Shariah law, in the wake of the country becoming a democracy after decades of military dictatorships. Many believed the law, a code of conduct based on the teachings of the Quran, would end the corruption that gripped the country's government.

However, the Shariah courts remained under the control of secular state governments, which pushed them into roles of directing traffic and stopping beer trucks. Government continued as always, with politicians driving black luxury Land Rovers, and one trader boasted a mansion built for about $100 million, complete with a room plated in gold. In the meantime, more than 80 percent of the country's 150 million people lived on less than $2 a day.

"People are living in absolute poverty," said Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi, an imam in Maiduguri. "Whenever people are living in this type of poverty, if you start saying to them, 'Look, come let us bring about change,' ... people must listen to you."

University graduates who joined Boko Haram tore up their diplomas. Others joined riots in 2007 attacking police stations. Yusuf's preaching became even more incendiary.

In July 2009, sect members attacked local police stations and government buildings throughout northeast Nigeria. The riots brought a crackdown by Nigeria's military and left more than 700 dead. Yusuf himself died after he was captured by the military and turned over to police in a country where so-called "extrajudicial killings" by authorities remain the norm.

An overrun, grassy field is all that remains of Boko Haram's former headquarters, surrounded by the hulked, rusted remains of motorcycles and cars set ablaze during the group's last stand. The loudspeaker that once called members to prayers lies on the ground, silent, as paramilitary police pat down passers-by on motorcycle taxis and take palmed bribes from drivers.

But rumors began this year about the group rearming. A short time later, two-man teams on the back of the motorcycle taxis that fill Nigeria's streets began attacking police officers, religious leaders and local officials who had testified against the group in open court.

In September, authorities say, Boko Haram members attacked a federal prison in Bauchi, freeing about 750 inmates — with more than 100 belonging to the sect. It remains unclear how many members the group has in total.

Boko Haram members have amassed around Maiduguri, as well as across Nigeria's border with nearby Cameroon, Chad and Niger, said Borno state police spokesman Lawal Abdullahi. The group's swelling arms supply comes across Lake Chad and the expansive, poorly-patrolled bush that surrounds the city, Abdullahi said. The ancient trading routes that tied the region to Islam centuries ago now funnel weapons and foreign fighters to Boko Haram.

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The rise of Boko Haram stirred up fears not only in Maiduguri, but also in foreign embassies.

A secret diplomatic cable rounding up potential global threats was sent in June 2009 on behalf of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to a copy recently released by WikiLeaks. The cable named Yusuf and identified his group as the "Nigerian Taliban." It warned that the group planned to launch a "massive surprise attack ... aimed at sparking sectarian clashes across Nigeria." The warning came a month before Boko Haram began its riot.

Diplomats also fear that Boko Haram may link with other foreign terror groups. After the 2009 violence, an arrested Boko Haram suspect told journalists he had been sent to Afghanistan to study bomb-making. His claim could not be independently verified.

In October, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the north Africa branch of the terror group, apparently transmitted a Boko Haram message through an Internet forum on behalf of a Yusuf deputy now believed to be running the sect. In the June 2009 cable, the State Department also said a "well-trained veteran Chadian extremist" with "limited ties to al Qaida" had recently traveled to Nigeria. The cable said the man possibly came to raise money for a terror attack, but had no other information.

It remains unclear what, if any, formal links al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has made with Boko Haram. The two groups belong to different ethnic groups with different customs. However, the al-Qaida group has paid local tribes in the past to take control of foreign hostages, and fighters linked to it have executed foreigners before.

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History shows Maiduguri sits apart from the rest of the country. Though now a bookend of Nigeria's Muslim north, the region belonged to an ancient empire that stretched east rather than into the western Hausa lands. It remains insular even today.

Boko Haram took advantage of that, as well as the region's endemic poverty. The group's members likely come from the teeming poor in Nigeria and surrounding countries, said Murray Last, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University College of London who studies Nigeria's north.

"What else would you actually do if you haven't got an education, if you haven't got a job, if you haven't got any future of a wife or a family?" Last asked. "Wouldn't it be better to join a religious community that might ensure you of a wife and children and sort of an education? ... A lot of young men have got no real option at all."

Many such young men flooded into northern Nigerian cities during the country's oil boom in the 1970s, hoping for jobs. Those coming from villages instead found hardship and alienation that made them receptive to any promise to change their lives, Last said.

That brought the north's first modern brush with Islamic extremism. Nigeria's north is dominated by Muslims, while its south is dominated by Christians.

In 1980, the radical Maitatsine movement took hold in the ancient northern city of Kano. Led by a Cameroonian immigrant who inserted his own name into the Quran in place of the prophet Mohammed, the sect decried a corrupt federal government made up of "infidels." Riots left 4,000 people dead.

The military finally put down the sect after years of violence, but many still identified with the group.

"An awful lot of men and women sympathize with them," Last said. "One is dealing with an unspoken sense of: 'These people are thinking and doing things which may be wrong, but they aren't that far wrong.'"

Much remains murky about Boko Haram's intentions, and whether all the killings in Maiduguri are due to the group's reemergence. Local officials killed recently often had no previous ties with the group.

"They all can't be insurgent activity," said Abdullahi, the police spokesman.

Kaka Abubakar, a local government official, said he fought off gunmen barehanded whom authorities identified as Boko Haram members. However, when interviewed in front of his home guarded by three soldiers, he said he had no idea who his assailants were or what they wanted.

He walked quickly away down a quiet alley near his home, all of his neighbors watching. As an Associated Press reporter pulled out a notebook, a lance corporal guarding Abubakar's house shouted at him not to take notes.

"Please do not write anything down. Please do not ask questions," the soldier said. "These are innocent people."