After Grisly Mosque Attack, Nigeria’s Boko Haram Terrorist Group Calls Out Obama

Fellows Fall 2012

By Alexis Okeowo

August 13, 2013

Also published by TIME

Konduga is a tiny community on the banks of a river in northeastern Nigeria. Its residents are mostly farmers who are accustomed to a simple life filled with days that pass like the one before. That has recently changed, as an insurgency waged by Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has spilled over from the heart of the war, in nearby city Maiduguri, and into the rural reaches of Borno state, where Konduga is located.

Nigerian soldiers guard ‘Id al-Fitr prayers at Ramat Square in Maiduguri, Nigeria

ALAMBA / AP

And on Sunday morning, things changed irrevocably for the worse. Gunmen burst into a mosque where scores of people were praying and started shooting, leaving at least 44 dead. A day later, Boko Haram released a new video taunting the leaders of the U.S., France and Israel.

In the battle against Boko Haram, vigilante groups working in Maiduguri and outside of the city calling themselves the Civilian Joint Task Force — modeled after the Joint Task Force of soldiers and police fighting Boko Haram — have entered the fray. They pursue and hand over suspected Boko Haram members to the military in an effort to make their communities safer. The vigilantes have the blessing of Nigeria’s government and some are armed. But their guerrilla campaign may have also angered Boko Haram.

“The mosque attack was likely a form of warning to Muslims to not cooperate with the joint task force, both the civilian and the regular ones,” says Virginia Comolli, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “And this is a probably a form of retaliation for the civilian joint task forces operating in the area, which are growing in prominence and confidence.”

Now that the Nigerian government has declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states (including Borno) while it wages its most extensive air and ground operation to root out Boko Haram, bodies are piling up again, except for the most wanted one: that of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. The U.S. government is offering a $7 million reward for information leading to Shekau’s capture. Under the zealous, isolated Shekau, Boko Haram has received training and funding from al-Qaeda-allied militants in the Sahel, a vast region with porous borders, and as far east as the Horn of Africa. And consequently, the group’s jihadist vision has grown more internationalist. Witnesses report having seen Boko Haram move into neighboring Niger, where, along with bordering countries Cameroon and Chad, the militants are potentially regrouping.

On a recent trip to Maiduguri, most imams refused to speak of Boko Haram after several of them had been assassinated for criticizing the group. One imam said the militants attacked mosques and Muslims because they were not devoted to Boko Haram’s extremist cause. “Now the insurgents believe that if they kill the imams, they will take over as the religious leaders,” he says. The group, which has long criticized the Muslim community for not being strict enough and said that imams are too susceptible to Western influence, has killed over 3,000 Muslims and Christians since 2009.

In the new video obtained by Agence France-Presse, Boko Haram leader Shekau confirmed that he was alive and in “good health” after rumors that he had been killed. He dared U.S. President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come after him, saying in Hausa, the regional language of northern Nigeria: “I’m challenging Obama.” He added: “They are no match for me.”

The military and police have certainly been challenged. On Aug. 4, the military said two soldiers and one police officer had been killed when Boko Haram members attacked a military base and police post in Bama, a town in Borno. But over the weekend, they admitted that actually 12 soldiers and seven police officers had been killed. The government says it has initiated an amnesty program to allow militants to return to their homes, and it pardoned a group of women and children found at captured Boko Haram bases. The children said they had been given as little as $31 to set fire to schools in the northeast.

Still, Solomon Dalung, a member of the Northern Elders Forum, which has advised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on combatting the terrorists, says the government is not sincere in its efforts to engage Boko Haram in dialogue and to comprehensively tackle the roots of Boko Haram — which include poverty, unemployment and a generation of alienated youth in the country’s majority-Muslim north. Boko Haram’s appeal to Nigerians who feel marginalized by the government is significant. “The state of emergency has not stemmed the tide of violence,” he says. “We are in a helpless situation.”

Alexis Okeowo reported on religion in Nigeria as a 2012 IRP Fellow.