Nigerian forces move in on Islamist radicals

Boko Haram has attacked schools, police stations, and other symbols of state power. While the group is relatively minor, the attacks underscore a widespread public distrust of the government.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Members of an Islamic group sit after their arrest in Kano, Nigeria on Monday.

After a murderous three-day insurgency that has claimed the lives of at least 150 people, Nigeria's military and security forces have moved in to target the radical Islamist group that has claimed credit for the attacks.

While experts say Boko Haram – whose name, "Western education prohibited," signals its political agenda and choice of targets, including schools – is relatively minor and lacks popular support, these attacks still represent a troubling disenchantment throughout Nigerian society toward their own government.

"In reality, this group is only a localized threat, but it is also an indication of a problem of Nigerians' frustrations, and the complacency of the government," says Antony Goldman, an independent risk consultant in London who specializes in Nigeria.

Widespread dissatisfaction

Most Nigerians complain loudly that their country is getting noticeably worse, Mr. Goldman says – despite some 50 years of freedom, about a decade of democratically elected governments, and Nigeria's possession of vast oil wealth.

Power shortages are common, roads are rutted, schools graduate students who can't read, and government officials are criticized for appearing to care more about their perks than solving problems. Traditional respect for elders, particularly in the Muslim north, tends to keep Nigerians from taking to the streets, but periodic bouts of violence show that the frustration is there.

"These things keep coming up," says Goldman, referring to insurgencies in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, and in the Muslim-majority north, "and the only thing that changes is that Nigeria is poorer."

Nigeria's demographic mix has long been a source of tension and sectarian violence. Half of its 140 million people are Christians, and live in the tropical south; the other half, living in the arid north, are Muslims.

What is striking about Boko Haram is that its targets are not Christians, but rather the government itself.

Preaching that Muslims must reject Western-influenced education in Nigeria's state-run schools, Boko Haram has attacked schools, but also police stations and other symbols of state power. All of its victims, from police officers to civilians, have been Muslims.

Violence that started out in Bauchi state, Boko Haram's home base, has spilled into neighboring states, which, like Bauchi state itself, are governed under Islamic sharia law.

Mosque shelled, house-to-house searches

Surrounding the home of the group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in the Northeastern town of Maiduguri, Nigerian Army forces have shelled a mosque thought to be used as a hideout and conducted house-to-house searches in an operation that an Army spokesman said was being conducted "to prevent further loss of lives and property."

Police said Wednesday that they had also freed 180 women and children that Boko Haram had held hostage in a house.

Witnesses in Maiduguri say that police gathered 100 bodies killed in fighting on Monday. In the northern city of Kano, police reportedly arrested 53 people after an attack on a police station in that city. Arrests were also made in the northern town of Sokoto, after tipoffs that Islamists were planning an attack.

President Umaru Yar'Adua, himself a scholarly Muslim politician from the north, told reporters that the operation would "nip a potentially dangerous problem in the bud," and pledged that his government would conduct an "operation that will contain them once and for all."

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