A watchman guards the evangelical Lutheran church in Yola. Across the street: the mosque, the theological home of the Islamists.
Believers pray in a temporary prayer niche on the streets of Sabon Gari. Muslims and Christians do still live as neighbours there.
Boko Haram has killed more than 2000 people since the beginning of 2014. A smartphone app lists the number of victims daily.
A similar number of people died when the Nigerian army attacked Boko Haram, as estimated by human rights groups.
Afiniki, 8 months old, lost her left arm during a terrorist attack on a church. Sixty people died, her mother Mary Ngillari survived because she was unconscious.
The gaze from her wide-open eyes is fixed on the ceiling, as if she were lying with fever in a hospital bed. Her lower arm was shot to pieces and is in a cast, a steel frame holds her lower leg firm. Next to the victim, her baby. Like a mutilated wing, it flaps the short stump attached to its shoulder. A bullet shattered the little one’s arm. It had to be amputated above the elbow. The woman in the bed wants to tell us what happened, but for a long while she can’t speak. She grinds her teeth. Sweat beads on her brow. “They left us for dead,” says she finally. “That’s the only reason we are still alive.”
With long pauses and so quietly that we often had trouble understanding her, Mary Ngillari, a young woman with fine facial features and decorative scars on her cheeks, tells us about the horror that she went through with her daughter Afiniki a few days earlier: a Sunday morning in January, shortly after 10 am. In the village church in Waga Chakawa in northeastern Nigeria, 200 Christians were attending the Catholic mass. Candles flickered on the altar, and children played in the aisles. As the priest started to give the host to the believers, shots were fired outside. Explosives flew through the windows, exploding in the middle of the rows of praying people. Men with Kalashnikovs flung open the church doors. They wore turbans, their faces were painted with earthy colours. “Allah akbar,” they screamed – God is great! Then they mowed down the people.
“Blood, blood everywhere,” stutters Mary Ngillari in her hospital bed and describes how she staggered outside over the bodies of the dead and injured with 8-month-old Afiniki clutched to her chest. Outside she noticed that the attackers had arrived in SUVs with mounted machine guns and mortars. “Then I felt a burning pain.” The first bullet went through her lower arm and her baby’s elbow. The second hit Mary in the right ankle, the third grazed her hip. She lay helpless on the ground and buried her baby beneath her. The attackers thought she was dead. They cut the throats of all the other wounded. “The Boys, the Boys,” stammers Mary and clutches her baby to her. “They were the Boys.”
26 January 2014.
Waga Chakawa, Adamawa state. Attack on a Catholic church, at least 60 dead.
For days we have been searching in northern Nigeria for information about one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world. Hardly anyone in the border region of Niger, Chad and Cameroon dares to speak their real names. Even the sound makes people terrified. The Islamist killer troops have declared war on Nigeria’s central government and fights in the north for a theocracy. The four syllables of their name lie like a curse over the country: Boko Haram – Western education is a sin.
Since 2001, the outcome of the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has resulted in up to 10,000 deaths. Just to the end of March 2014, Amnesty International estimates that already more than 1500 people have died in attacks by Boko Haram. 290,000 Nigerians are fleeing, half of them children. Nevertheless, very little is known about the “Nigerian Taliban”. Our investigation was meant to find an answer to some questions: What drives Boko Haram? How extensive is the support for the fighters in the region, and where does it come from? Where do they allegedly get their money and weapons, who teaches them to build car bombs and operate rocket launchers? And what connections does Boko Haram have to international terrorist networks that are also threatening the Western world?
This much is certain: In the past few years, numerous Islamist groups have opened a broad front of rebellions and conflicts in the Sahel region, reaching from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast right across Africa to Somalia on the Indian Ocean. The extremists are allied to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Their goal is to destabilise democratically elected governments, bring about their downfall and replace them with a theocracy. “Sahelistan”, as the French foreign minister Laurent Fabious calls the crisis region south of the Sahara, is developing into a new deployment area for international terrorism.
26 January 2014
Kawuri, Borno state. Attack on a market, bombings, 300 houses burned down, 52 dead.
In the background of our tour, the merciless body count rises. An app distributed to local mobile phones shows how the number of victims rises with each new attack. Just in the weeks that we were searching for traces of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, the Islamists killed hundreds of people. But in the Nigerian capital Abuja, we encountered only silence whenever we asked about Boko Haram. In the Home Office, Army Supreme Command, police management – closed doors everywhere. Senators and generals were suddenly out of town, along with their deputies. Informers made appointments with us but never showed up. We finally reached a school director by mobile phone who is known to be receiving death threats from Boko Haram. Could we meet up? “Absolutely not!” he shouted in the telephone and hung up. Even the fruit merchant on a street corner started when we tried to ask him about Boko Haram: “They’ll shoot you in the eyes!”
THE FRUIT MERCHANT STARTED WHEN WE ASKED ABOUT BOKO HARAM: “THEY’LL SHOOT YOU IN THE EYES!”
We don’t get any further in Abuja. And the army will not let us travel to Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, where Boko Haram was founded. A state of emergency has extended over Borno and the neighbouring states of Yobe and Adamawa since May 2013. The mobile phone network has been turned off. Flights have been suspended. And no one will travel with us secretly cross-country: Twelve hours of driving through Boko Haram territory – most likely suicide.
The Islamists rule northeastern Nigeria, but they have already laid bombs in the capital Abuja. Their presence in the provincial capital Kano is even more powerful, where the fear of further attacks dominates people’s daily lives.
We leave Abuja to drive around the restricted area. A well-built motorway leads us directly to the north where granite ridges arise from the sunburnt plains, lined with baobabs and acacias. After two hours’ driving, we reach Kaduna, capital of the eponymous northern state.
“YOUR NEIGHBOUR, YOUR COLLEAGUE, YOUR FRIEND, EVEN YOUR BROTHER OR FATHER – ANYONE COULD BE FROM BOKO HARAM”
“Boko Haram fighters do not wear a uniform, they are not easily recognisable,” says Shehu Sani to us on the porch of his house; in the bushes of the next-door garden, on the other side of the wall crowned with barbed wire, the wind rustles. “Your neighbour, your colleague, your friend, even your brother or father – anyone could be from Boko Haram.” Boko Haram is lurking everywhere. “One wrong move, and you are lying in a pool of your own blood,” affirms Shehu Sani.
He is a human rights activist who will stand as a candidate in the senate election in Kaduna in February 2015 and is one of the few politicians who dare to speak to journalists. In 2011, the strong, small man was the chief negotiator who moderated peace talks between the Islamists and the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. The dialogue failed. Since then, Shehu Sani has acted as an expert on the mysterious underground organisation. “In Nigeria, there is no sensible governance,” says he, “that is the sole reason for why Boko Haram could spread so quickly.”
THEIR RELIGIOUS ROOTS lie in the Izala sect, a group of Muslim preachers in northern Nigeria in the 1970s. Around 2001 a man called Mohammed Yusuf took over the spiritual leadership of a splinter group of especially radical fanatics. The conservative, but non-violent imam was then in his early 30s and had studied theology at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. In the megacity Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria, Yusuf denounced in his preaching the corruption, the lack of jobs and the poverty ruling the Muslim north.
With its 165 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most densely populated country in Africa. The south is mostly populated by Christians and believers in animistic religions, Muslims dominate the north. The economic centres and the massive oil fields of Nigeria lie almost exclusively in the south. The profit from the oil exports are distributed over the states, but it ends up in the pockets of just 1% of the population – according to a World Bank report. Despite income from oil exports amounting to 95 billion dollars annually, in the north over three-quarters of the people live in absolute poverty. “The south is booming, the north is left to starve,” as Shehu Sani describes the widespread feeling.
From the beginning, Yusuf, the leader of extremists, blamed the unfair distribution on the influence of the West. He saw the solution in the radical transformation into sharia, Islamic law. Yusuf rejected democratic elections. He considered Darwin’s theory of evolution to be a fabrication of the West, and instead he taught that the Earth is flat. He cursed foodstuffs with Western brandnames in Nigeria, from Maggi bouillon cubes to Macleans toothpaste. In particular, the Western educational concept conflicted with his strict interpretation of Islam. That is why people started calling his movement Boko Haram from around 2002, namely Western education is a sin. Its official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati WalJihad – Community of Sunnis Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.
Yusuf’s followers were already spread throughout northern Nigeria when the police shot at a group of sect youths on motorbikes in Maiduguri in 2009. “Their excuse was that they were not wearing helmets,” explained Sani. In revenge, Boko Haram started attacking police stations and other public buildings. Around 800 people died. Yusuf was arrested, and shortly thereafter was found dead on the street with signs of torture on his body. A government representative claimed he was shot while fleeing. The new leader of the Islamists since then is Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s former deputy. “Allah commands us to cut off your heads, cut off your limbs, mutilate your bodies,” said the full-bearded sect chief recently in a video message while wearing a camouflage uniform and carrying a Kalashnikov.
“The important decisions in Boko Haram are taken by a 32-person council,” revealed Shehu Sani to us at the end of our visit in Kaduna. “This council decides where the bombs will be exploded and who will be killed.” The criteria for deciding over life and death remain a secret. Sani estimates the number of active fighters as “at least 5000”.
Who are these men? “No one knows who they are,” said Sani. Even the chief negotiator has never seen the face of anyone from Boko Haram. “All contacts went through their families, who communicated what was discussed to them.” How does one find the fighters? Talk to them directly? “If you were to succeed,” Sani said in farewell, “be prepared to die a gruesome death. And pray.”
11 February 2014
Konduga, Borno state. Attack with automatic weapons and explosives. Twenty schoolgirls kidnapped, 57 dead.
Aside from Boko Haram, there is a whole range of Islamitic groups active south of the Sahara, creating a 7500 km long trail of blood right across the continent. With up to 2000 fighters, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an African offshot of the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, has been terrorising the Sahel for years. In 2012 AQIM briefly took control of the north of Mali, an area twice the size of Germany. Neighbouring Mauritania, one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, offers the extremists the ideal hiding place. In Niger, they blow up military installations. In the Ivory Coast as well, with its Muslim north and Christian south, the fear of attacks is growing.
(caption:) Shehu Sani was the mediator in the negotiations between the government and the leadership of Boko Haram, but the talks failed. Now the region is threatening to go up in flames
And that is not all. Eastwards of the area in which Boko Haram operates, in the Sudanese crisis region of Darfur,
Muslim mounted militias were massacring the civilian population until recently. In neighbouring Chad, Muslim-Christian tensions are now superceding the old social conflicts that have led to several civil wars. In the Central African Republic, whose northern border reaches the Sahel, Muslim rebels grabbed hold of power briefly in March 2013; since their withdrawal, Christian militias have been mercilessly hunting Muslims. In the far eastern part of the Sahel, in Somalia, the Islamists of al-Shabaab have been conducting a brutal war for decades with the government and African Union troops. The evident result is an apparently ungovernable area the size of one-third of Europe.
15 February 2014
Izghe, Borno state. Boko Haram fighters herded the inhabitants into the village square and shot them. 106 dead
From Shehu Sani’s house in Kaduna we proceed further northwards, where the rocky hills of central Nigeria transform into the ochre-coloured flats of the Sahel. After four hours’ drive we reach Kano, the second largest city after Lagos, with three million inhabitants. Heavily armed soldiers guard the street corners. Anti-terror units patrol in armoured vehicles. A new ruling forbids passengers on motorbikes as Boko Haram fighters often carry their Kalashnikovs on the seat. To prevent assassinations, policemen on patrol do not wear uniforms. Signs have been taken off of government buildings so they are not labelled as targets for Boko Haram.
We meet up with Ahmed, a spindly man with Arabic facial features and large dark eyes, who is probably the best informed person about the Islamists in Kano. On the displays of both his mobile phones there are continuous reports of new attacks. Ahmed has been studying Boko Haram since January 2012 when its fighters shot his best friend. A suicide bomber exploded a car bomb in the police headquarters in Kano while at the same time thousands of Islamists stormed other government buildings in other parts of the city. They slit the throats of their victims in front of phone cameras. Black columns of smoke rose above the city, dead bodies lying everywhere.
(caption:) The majority of the inhabitants in the Sabon Gari district of Kano are Christian, but the local Catholic St Rita church employs the protection of the military against terrorist attacks
“Right here is where I found my friend Ibrahim,” said Ahmed and pointed to a dark stain on the road as we drive by the police station that had been attacked. “With three bullets in his chest and three in his head.” Over 200 people died that day when Boko Haram decided to leave its rural areas and penetrate to the centre of the northern region, to sow fear and terror there, too.
We stop in a side street to stretch our legs. We talk some more about Boko Haram. At that moment a silver SUV rolls slowly past with its windows down and then stops just 10 meters away from us. Did the men in the vehicle hear us talking? Ahmed’s eyes widen in fear. “Let’s get out of here now!” he orders and pushes us back in the car. While we rush off, he is livid with anger: “You can’t just say these names out loud,” he shouts and looks around worriedly for the silver SUV. “These Boys have networks! They just have to snap their fingers and we’re dead.”
25 February 2014
Buni Yadi, Yobe state. Attack on a school. Schoolchildren burned alive. 59 dead.
The city of Kano has still not recovered from the shock of the attacks in 2012. There used to be a lot of textile factories here, plus tanneries, furniture and cardboard factories, oil mills, a brewery. The local industries had difficulty surviving the influx of cheap Chinese goods that have been entering the African markets for years. Then Boko Haram delivered the death blow to the struggling economic centre. Buyers from neighbouring countries did not dare to travel to Kano. Investors withdrew. Almost all of the factories had to close. Hundreds of thousands of people were made unemployed.
Fear reigns in Sabon Gari, a slum-like district in the centre of the city, as the majority of its inhabitants are Christians from the south, from the Ibo tribe. The many churches here are guarded by armed police during services. “The war of the Boys is not a conflict between Muslims and Christians, however,” claims Ahmed, “it is not a religious war.” Boko Haram has apparently killed more Muslims than Christians so far. “The Boys kill anyone they suspect of working with the government,” says Ahmed, while we drive through the damaged streets of Sabon Gari. Just as few years ago we moved freely through here, even being white people. Now we can’t even go to take a leak without Ahmed beginning to panic.
“IT IS NOT A RELIGIOUS WAR,” CLAIMS OUR GUIDE. BOKO HARAM HAS ACTUALLY KILLED MORE MUSLIMS THAN CHRISTIANS SO FAR.
“The Boys are specialising in kidnapping,” he warned us. “Europeans bring in the highest ransoms.”
They have apparently extorted millions in ransom money and bought heavy armaments from Libya with the proceeds. Boko Haram fighters also rob banks, smuggle people and goods – and even drugs travelling from South America through West Africa to Europe, as the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism suspects. “The drug cartels pays the Boys with weapons,” says Ahmed.
Accompanied by several local bodyguards, we balance on boards across ankle-deep waste water puddles in which the ruins of the houses of Sabon Guri are reflected. Meters high piles of garbage lie in the alleys. Faeces bob in the trenches. Images of the oppressive poverty that is rampant throughout the Sahel. In the Republic of Niger, every other inhabitant is undernourished. In Mali, three-quarters of the population survive on less than 2 US dollars a day. Chad and Somalia are the two countries in the world with the highest infant mortality rate. Fertile ground for Boko Haram, al-Qaida, al-Schabaab and their splinter groups, which offer a ticket to paradise for the price of an explosive belt around your middle.
(caption:) Al Kali Ibrahim Yola runs a Muslim court in Kano. Christians also come to it for justice: Sharia judges are considered less corrupt
(caption:) In the Islamic school of Kumbotso, a town near Kano, pupils memorise the Koran. No one checks what these madrassas actually teach.
26 February 2014
Shuwa, Kirchinga, Michika in Adamawa state. Coordinated attacks, looting, 37 dead.
In northern Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan initiates a military solution to the conflict. The annual national security budget is 5 billion euros, 20 percent of the entire budget. The air force bombs areas suspected of being training camps for extremists. Special units carry out raids and arm vigilantes. But the generals have barely declared “Victory” when the Islamists attack again. Recently, they overran the famous Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, the headquarters of the military offensive that has been going on for a year, in which the army was holding 1000 alleged sect followers and torturing them; over 100 were apparently freed during the attack.
“OUR WAR IS NOT LIMITED TO NIGERIA,” THREATENS THE COMMANDER OF BOKO HARAM. “OUR WAR COVERS THE WHOLE WORLD”
“The military can exert pressure on Boko Haram,” reveals a high-ranking member of the Nigerian security forces, who wished to remain anonymous. “But the army cannot defeat the Islamists.”
The fighters avoid the military operations by retreating over the borders to neighbouring countries. “There they train in AQIM and al-Shabaab camps with heavy weapons, which they did not have until recently,” says the informant and lists anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers and highly technical armoured vehicles. “Specialists from international terrorist networks teach Boko Haram how to programme remote detonators for bombs and plastic explosives so precisely that they cause maximum damage.”
Thus, Africa’s mujahideen become increasingly professional and form closer cross-border ties. Some fighters come from as far away as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Europe, according to the European police authority Europol.
“Our war is not limited to Nigeria,” threatened Abubakar Shekau, the commander of Boko Haram, in a recent video message. “Our war covers the whole world.” The US government has put a bounty on its public enemy no. 1 in Africa of seven million dollars. And the anti-terror coordinator of the European Union, Gilles de Kerchove, warned that Europe’s military interventions against the Islamists in the Sahel are increasing the risk of terrorist attacks north of the Mediterranean carried out by fighters returning with European passports. This applies to Germany as well, since its soldiers are training national forces in Mali.
But it does not seem that military operations will solve the problem of Islamic terror in the Sahel. Rather the contrary seems to be true. We drive with Ahmed to the outskirts of Kano, where the town fades into a desert landscape. Ahmed wants to introduce us to a witness.
“They arrived at 5 am,” reports Abdul, a 25-year-old day labourer. “20 pick-ups, three armoured vehicles, more than 100 government security men. They raced through the village and shot wildly around.” We crouch in front of two huts of unplastered brick, perpendicular to a cold stove. Geese scrabble through the garbage between sooty pots while Abdul describes how his brother was looking out the window as the special forces approached. They dragged him into the street and pushed his face into the dirt with their boots. He cried out: “I haven’t done anything!” The men shot him in front of his children without even having asked his name.
Amnesty International accuses the Nigerian security forces of serious human rights violations: random arrests, torture, executions. “The government will pay for that,” swears Abdul with hate-filled eyes. “Boko Haram will cut off the genitals of those bastards.”
(caption:) When the Catholic St. Rita church is filled for prayer, the fear in the room is tangible. So often busy churches are attacked, and thousands die in those events.
HOW CAN THE CONFLICT with Boko Haram be solved? Experts like the human rights activist Shehu Sani or analysts of the International Crisis Group based in Brussels fear that it will not be possible in the short term. They recommend that the Nigerian government invest more in the economy of the north, supporting more education and social projects, to remove the poverty- and ignorance-based breeding ground for the fundamentalist ideology of Boko Haram. “In the Nigerian delta, these policies are already having an effect,” says Sani and points to several regions of the oil-rich south, in which a civil war had been raging for years. “Since the government applied some of the oil wealth there to significantly improve the living standards of the people, calm has returned.”
The north of Nigeria is far removed from there. We are noticing that we have started to look nervously over our shoulders more frequently. We have long stopped saying the real name of the “Boys” in the open. We do not eat a meal in the same café twice, we change accommodation every three days, and we continue driving around the roundabout every evening on the way home until we are sure that we are not being followed.
It didn’t take long before the underlying feeling that grips everyone here had affected us: We feel constantly threatened, and act as if we are on the run from some dark force that can attack without warning at any time. The most effective weapon of terror, we realise, is its attritional invisibility.
INTERVIEW WITH THE NIGERIA EXPERT CARLO KOOS
“THE TERRORISTS RUN RINGS AROUND THE STATE”
Carlos Koos, 36, from the GIGA Institute for Africa Studies in Hamburg, is studying the conflicts in Nigeria.
Boko Haram wants to establish an Islamic theocracy in Nigeria. Is Africa’s most populous country about to start a religious war? The core involves a social conflict. In northern Nigeria there are many young people without a future; and a general feeling that the government has abandoned them.
Boko Haram claims that the oil-rich south of Nigeria is bleeding the north dry, is that true? Nigeria has a federal structure, and the money gained from the oil is distributed to all regions. But most of the income lands with the army, politicians and economy. Little ends up with the people.
And the transition to democracy did not change anything? Many people believe that there was less corruption before democracy was instituted in 1999; possibly, the corruption is now more evident. The problem in the north is: The Muslim Haussa used to be dominant in the government and the army. The current president of the country is an Ijaw, a minority group. Many people in the north experience democracy as a loss of power for their ethnic group. That is why it is so easy for the extremists to claim: “Western influences are damaging us!”
What is Boko Haram’s strategy? Why mass murder?
One rationale for their actions could be: When other rebels in the south of Nigeria attacked the oil pipelines in 2009, oil production in Nigeria was reduced by one-third. That was painful for the government, so many rebels were pacified by giving them political posts. Perhaps the individual leaders of Boko Haram want to pursue a similar goal and are upping the ante with their cruelty. Local
Rebellions in Africa are a proven method to win a place at the negotiation table.
Could Boko Haram destroy the country of Nigeria?
I do not believe that Boko Haram is strong enough to launch a coup. But the terrorists run rings around the state. They have spread their terror into the capital Abuja, and the police were not able to stop them. This shows that it is not just a local conflict.
Why has the government been so unsuccessful, for example in freeing over 200 kidnapped schoolgirls? Boko Haram is clearly financed by an international terrorist
(caption:)Terror damages the economy: Textile factory in Kano
network. The border region in northern Nigeria is difficult to control; there are links with extremists from Mali and Niger, probably also as far as the al-Shabaab militia in Somalia. In addition, there are politicians in northern Nigeria who profit from the uprising and support Boko Haram secretly.
Will Boko Haram ever be integrated in the government, like the rebels from the south?
That is a more difficult issue. Religious conflicts often culminate in extreme demands, like founding a theocracy. That is difficult to put into perspective. How can a compromise be found when one side begins with the formula, “Western education is a sin”?
Interview: Jens Schröder, Jürgen Schaefer
01 March 2014
Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. Two coordinated car bombs at a public TV broadcast. 52 dead, mostly football fans.
And not only people in the north – all Nigerians are in danger. At the upcoming presidential election in February, Boko Haram could plunge the entire country into ruin. In principle, the Nigerian president alternates between one from the north and one from the south so that both regions share power equally. But now the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger delta in the south, wants to stand again. If he does win the election, major unrest can be expected in the north, which Boko Haram could profit from. The government would send more troops, and the violence would escalate.
“Ethnic-religious tensions within the army could also lead to a split in the military and then to a civil war,” fears Jaye Gaskia, coordinator of the Protest to Power Movement, a group dedicated to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. “Nigeria would not survive that.” In that case, Gaskia believes there would not be a smooth break between north and south. “Nigeria will shatter into pieces like a plate falling on the floor.”
A “somalisation of Nigeria”, i.e. splitting the country into numerous civil war parties like those fighting bitterly in Somalia for decades: The consequences for West Africa would be devastating. Oil-rich Nigeria is the most important economic centre south of the Sahara. And the Nigerian army with its 80,000 soldiers is one of the largest on the continent. “All of West Africa would go up in flames,” Gaskia fears.
FOR WEEKS we have been travelling and have given up hope of direct contact with Boko Haram – until an informant sends us a message. One fighter has declared that he is willing to talk to us. The meeting is arranged in the place where our research began: Abuja, capital of the Nigerian government.
The area around the city of Maiduguri is almost completely controlled by Boko Haram.
At the edge of the capital we rent a room in a guesthouse we know from an earlier visit. All night long we lie awake on the bed, dressed and shoes on, and listen through the half-open window for any noise. Perhaps they are discussing our fate outside in the dark. At least 300 people have been killed since we arrived in Nigeria.
We wait three days. And three long nights. Afraid, helpless, apathetic. Then we receive a call, “You have a visitor.” We expect a fearsome fighter with piercing eyes and a scar across his face, but the man who walks into our room a few minutes later seems completely harmless. He is in his early 30s, wears a simple reddish caftan and leather sandals. His hair is cut short, his lips thick and dry. He scans the room before sitting down. Is he armed? Gun? Hand grenade? Explosive belt? “Call me Mohammed,” he said, “like the Prophet.”
Born in Maiduguri to the Kanuri tribe, he joined Boko Haram eight years ago because, as he says, he found in the fight for Allah what the government in the south has refused him: “Dignity, perspective, meaning.” He rapidly rose through the ranks to teacher and now instructs over 100 fighters in “the true Islam”. In the middle of the Nigerian capital. “We want justice for our leader Yusuf,” says he, and his voice takes on a severe undertone. “And for all those the government has killed.” Boko Haram intends to disrupt these “gangs of murderers and fraudsters” and separate the south from the north, to establish a theocracy.
With any help? “From our friends in al-Qaida,” says Mohammed with some hesitation. His expression grew cold as he added, “Together we shall transform the Sahel into a hell for unbelievers. Allah wants it so, and we are Allah’s servants.”
We dare to ask whether Allah actually demands that they attack defenceless villages. “Everyone working together with the government must die,” is the answer. “One in a village is enough to wipe them all out.”
Even women and children? Even babies? Like little Afiniki whose arm was shot off in the church at Waga Chakawa?
“It is war,” states Mohammed, “and war does not distinguish between man, woman, or child.”
How do they know who is their enemy in this war?
“Anyone we don’t know can be our enemy – absolutely anybody!”
Anyone can be from Boko Haram. And anyone can be an enemy of Boko Haram. Everyone is afraid of everyone else in northern Nigeria. “If we don’t kill them, they will kill us,” says Mohammed.
We thought that the terrorists’ most powerful weapon was their invisibility. Now we understand: They have an even stronger weapon: fear. Other people’s fear and, paradoxically enough, their own fear. Fear drives the killing, and the killing feeds the fear. On both sides. And with every subsequent death, the terror moves closer to chaos, into which all of West Africa could sink.
Why did Mohammed come to meet us? He looks at our negotiator. “I trust him,” says he and suddenly he looks like a normal Nigerian again. “We are friends.” Then he disappears through the door into the night.
03 March 2014.
Mafa, Borno state. Raid with machine guns and rocket launchers, 80 dead.
A few weeks after our team returns home, Boko Haram kidnaps over 200 schoolgirls. The whole world looks aghast at Nigeria. France and five African countries decide on an action plan against the terrorist organisation. As this edition goes to press, the Islamists still have the girls in their power.
Photographer ANDY SPYRA documented previously for GEO the legacy of Ratko Mladić in Serbia and the life of Christians in Iraq (GEO No. 08/2012). This is author MICHAEL OBERT’s first report for GEO.