Saturday, February 11, 2012

Nigeria militants tied to government

10 February 2012

By Xan Rice in Abuja

Islamist militants behind a growing insurgency in northern Nigeria have links in government and the ability to extend their attacks to previously safe parts of the country, Nigeria’s national security adviser has warned.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people over the past year in raids on police stations, government buildings and churches in the remote north-east and the capital Abuja. But suicide attacks in recent weeks on two of the north’s biggest cities, Kano and Kaduna, suggest the militants’ reach is spreading, with intelligence agencies unable to keep up.

 “When I speak to governors, I say it possible to happen anywhere,” General Owoye Azazi told the Financial Times in an interview in the capital Abuja. “These people [militants] wear shirts and trousers. They don’t have marks on their heads saying Boko Haram. They look and sound like everybody.”

The anonymity extends to some of the movement’s more powerful supporters, which is complicating efforts to stop the insurgency and hints at a political dimension to the conflict. A senator and an air force officer are among those arrested for allegedly assisting Boko Haram.

“It tells you that we have them among us,” General Azazi said.

The rapid rise of Boko Haram, which means “western education is forbidden” in Hausa, has caused great alarm in Nigeria, where the 160m population is roughly evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

While the bulk of attacks are at aimed security forces, raids on churches have led to fears that the movement is trying to spark a religious war.

There are also concerns about ties with international terror groups. General Azazi said that security forces had recovered training manuals written in Arabic, training videos, and “martyr videos” recorded by Boko Haram suicide bombers.

“I watched videos of their weapons training, which is very professional. They are also innovative in making IEDS [improvised explosive devices],” he said.

“I want to believe very strongly that there is outside assistance. We are thinking of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.”

Until now, the government has tried to crush the insurgency using force. But the strategy has largely failed, and may have helped Boko Haram gain sympathy in the north-east from people already angered by perceived imbalances in the country

General Azazi said that the militants easily slipped across the porous borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and admitted it was taking time for security forces to master counterterror tactics.

“Crimes we were used to are armed robbery and car snatching. But Boko Haram has suicide bombers with explosives.”

Such tactics were employed in the attack on Kano Nigeria’s second-biggest city, on January 20. More than 180 people were killed when militants struck eight targets in a co-ordinated strike.

“The attack was a big shock and a setback for us. Our feeling was … people did not expect a city like that to be attacked,” said General Azazi. “If they can come to a place like Kano that is neutral and cause mayhem in a predominantly Muslim city ... that woke people up.”

Security forces subsequently arrested Abu Qaqa, the main spokesman for Boko Haram, in Kaduna, about 100 miles from Abuja.

But in an attack that has been interpreted as a direct response, two suicide bombers in separate vehicles attempted to enter the 1st army division headquarters in Kaduna on Tuesday. One of the bombers, wearing a military uniform, detonated his charges after guards fired at him. The other bomber was shot dead. The army reported no casualties.

General Azazi said a negotiated end to the conflict was difficult, as Boko Haram’s leaders remain in the shadows. “Some people say that we must reach out to them. But if you reach out to somebody 10 steps away from the centre, you are wasting your time.”

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