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In Nigerian vacuum, Boko Haram is expanding its base (+video)

More than a year after President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to eradicate the radical Islamists, the group is taking towns in the northeast. Can it create an Islamic caliphate? 

Early this month a purported Boko Haram spokesman phoned reporters and spoke in gloating tones. Abu Zinnira, as he called himself, said his extremist group now controlled towns and villages in northern Nigeria.

"Let the whole world know we are on the path of victory,” he said in a 30-second phone call, adding that Nigeria's official claim to control the north region were “lies."

Boko Haram militants, perhaps now taking a cue from the self-styled Islamic State, are hiding out less in the forest and are becoming less clandestine. The group is now openly trying to annex towns to form an Islamic “caliphate,” one of its long-time stated aims.

And while Nigeria's chattering class debates the truth of these claims on TV, amid a scarcity of accurate news from the north, international security analysts say the Boko Haram offensive represents a new, calculated attempt to grow its power base – and it may be working. 

“This is something they have been planning [for] a couple of months,” said E.J. Hogendoorn, an Africa specialist at the International Crisis Group in Washington. “Boko Haram has destroyed a couple of bridges in the northeast in an effort to keep the security forces from quickly deploying. That has allowed them to operate with relative freedom.”

Nigerian officials, especially in the Army, denies the shadowy group controls territory, while admitting they continue to fight fiercely. Reports that Boko fighters are hanging black Al Qaeda flags on government buildings are false, says military spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade.

“Any group of terrorists laying claim to any portion of the country will not be allowed to get away with that expression of delusion and crime,” Gen. Olukolade says.

Convert or die

But ordinary people fleeing the region say towns and villages are falling under Boko Haram control – and that militants say they are replacing the government with their version of an Islamist state. Refugees describe militants forcing people to convert to Islam or be killed, and of youth being commandeered to fight, while Nigeria media has reported that militant leaders are offering to marry women whose husbands are killed by Boko Haram. Similar practices were imposed by Islamists in Mali before French troops intervened in 2012. 

In the northern city of Kaduna, hundreds of miles from Borno State, the heart of the insurgency, displaced families cram into the homes of friends and relatives. Many areas that the group claims to "occupy" appear to be barely populated.  

Down a dirt road behind a government school, Hafsat Maina Mohammed, a newlywed from Borno State, cares for four children and her ailing mother in a two-room apartment.  Her brother, the children's father, was recently killed by Boko Haram in Gwoza, one of the towns insurgents claim to control.

“My people are homeless. My people are hungry. My people are crying. My people have lost hope of life,” Ms. Mohammed said. “I see a lot of orphans in my family. A lot of widows.”

Displacement accelerates

At least 650,000 people have fled the five-year old uprising, according to the UN, and the numbers are growing, with roughly 200,000 people displaced since May. Thousands have been killed this year in the northeast where they usually operate, according to Amnesty International, and hundreds of men, women and children have been kidnapped. 

The pace and geographical reach of the group's attacks are also increasing. It has carried out bombings in Abuja and Lagos, the commercial capital.  

As towns in the north fall and Boko Haram adds fighters and equipment, the prospect of an attack on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, grows substantially, says Yan St. Pierre, CEO of Berlin-based security firm, MOSECON. Maiduguri is a sprawling city estimated to be home to over a million people, including those displaced by rural unrest. 

Boko Haram’s current strategy appears to be to take over remote areas in preparation for a strike on Maiduguri, which is heavily fortified by the Nigerian Army, according to Mr. St. Pierre.

“While the government puts all the resources in the big city, they strike in the belt around that city,” he said.  “And at some point when they feel the time is right, then they go for the kill shot.” 

Election factor

Nigeria is holding national elections in February – and the insecurity caused by Boko Haram may be a factor. The actual threat that the group poses, though, and its capabilities and intentions, is a murkier calculation. 

St. Pierre argues that, at least on paper, Nigeria already has the resources to contain Boko Haram, but in reality the Army in Africa's largest petro-state doesn't always have enough fuel to transport soldiers to battle. “The federal government and the army have a strategy but it’s constantly sabotaged by local politicians,” he adds.

While there has been a steady increase of bloody Boko Haram attacks, predictions of all-out conflict during the elections may be too alarmist. The government may reach “a tipping point where Nigerian leaders realize the status quo is unsustainable,” says Mr. Hogendoorn from Crisis Group.

Former Nigerian lawmaker Usman Bugaje says that Army troops have at times refused to deploy against Boko Haram, arguing that they aren't equipped or training for the fight. Meanwhile, Boko Haram releases frequent videos showing off their heavy weaponry, vehicles and a seemingly unlimited supply of fighters.

Many northern residents say Boko Haram fighters are actually abductees ordered to fight. Other recruits however do join willingly, angered by the perceived neglect of a wealthy government neglect in the impoverished northeast, or convinced of Boko Haram’s Islamist vision. 

“The situation,” Bugaje says. “Has been very, very frightening,”

Reporting from Maiduguri was provided by a news assistant whose name is being withheld. 

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