Africa watchers remained baffled a day after local officials in Nigeria said that 44 Muslims praying in a mosque were massacred by the radical Islamist Boko Haram group. Some 12 other persons were killed nearby.
The attack on the mosque took place in the north, amid a military crackdown in that region launched in May by President Goodluck Jonathan.
As with the recent massacre of dozens of schoolchildren in July, also claimed by Boko Haram, the mosque attack came packaged with a video by Abubakar Shekau, the ostensible leader.
Mr. Shekau claimed his forces are preparing for global jihad, and he challenged a variety of heads of state, including President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming that he was tougher than any of them.
The combination of the video, the killing of “soft targets” such as children and fellow Muslims, the military crackdown, and a reported uprising of vigilante citizens in the north that are fighting back against Boko Haram have provided grist for speculation about the group’s recent tactics.
Some analysts wonder if the shock factor of the attacks – Boko Haram terrorists reportedly shot children as they ran out of a burning school last month – is aimed at forcing the Nigerian government into negotiations by sending a message that it can continue to up the terror quotient.
Another theory is that Shekau needs the gruesome headlines to highlight and accompany his video public relations challenge to Washington, London, Tel Aviv, and other targets.
A problem in verifying any strategy or concept is that the Maiduguri area in the north of Nigeria where Boko Haram “lives” is closed off, with sketchy telecommunications. Whether there is any complicity in the dynamics of Boko Haram tactics and actions, and those of local officials, therefore, remains unknown. Most of the reporting out of the north cites government or security sources.
Some Africa-watchers, like Elizabeth Donnelly at Chatham House in London, say that Boko Haram may be following a gory version of the old dictum that “all politics is local” and are going after anyone, including citizen vigilantes, that are opposing them.
Time magazine's Alexis Okeowo, writing out of Lagos yesterday, notes that:
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.
As the Monitor reported yesterday:
Early Sunday morning as villagers prayed, men in camouflage crept into a local mosque and opened fire, killing at least 44 worshipers and sending dozens of others to the hospital, according to local security sources. Some 20 miles away, 12 other people were killed in a similar attack.
Nigerian authorities are now publicly blaming Boko Haram for the attacks in the villages of Konduga and Ngom, and saying that the Islamist militant group was sending a message: If you cooperate with Nigerian security forces, we may kill you.
The attacks were the latest in a series of massacres associated with the Nigerian radical group that has, since mid-May, come under a full military crackdown in the north, escalating what some analysts say is a strategic back and forth between the radicals and the government.
The Nigerian Army claims to have killed or arrested hundreds of Boko Haram members since May. Last month the group was charged with the burning of a school that took the lives of 29 to 40 persons, most of them children.
Moreover, this week Boko Haram's ostensible leader, the shadowy Abubakar Shekau, who appears only on videotape, challenged a variety of world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, saying "you are no match for me."
While the group started out with an anti-Western, anti-Christian message (the term "Boko Haram" translates as "Western education is sinful") its core ideology appears increasingly inchoate even as its targets of killing get wider and wider, this time including Muslims praying in a mosque.
One reason given for Sunday's mosque attack is that clerics there were putting out a moderate message of greater harmony among peoples, rather than preaching adherence to the Boko Haram version of strict Sharia law, analysts say.
“It seems most often [that] whoever crosses the group is a potential target,” according to Elizabeth Donnelly of the Africa Program at the London-based think tank, Chatham House. “You’re either on our side or you’re a potential victim.”
Rather than targeting Christians strictly for their faith, she adds, Boko Haram has used existing tensions between Muslims and Christians to increase the chaos in Nigeria’s north.
Nigeria is roughly divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
Human Rights Watch says that this kind of community violence – not related solely to issues of faith, but between self-identifying Muslims and Christians groups – has been responsible for the lives of some 14,000 Nigerians since 1999, well before Boko Haram began to operate.
Officials from Borno state where the attack on the mosque took place said it was likely aimed at scaring informants that are helping in the military campaign against Boko Haram.
Since Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared in May a state of emergency in the northeastern Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States, the military has been relying on public participation to counter the group.
In a video released shortly after the mosque attack, Abubakar Shekau claims his group is not only successfully taking the fight to Nigeria, but is ready to battle nations around the world.
“We have killed countless soldiers and we are going to kill more,” Shekau says on the video in his native Hausa language. “Our strength and firepower has surpassed that of Nigeria… We can now comfortably confront the United States of America.”
Boko Haram is blamed for between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths since it began operating in 2009. It has attacked schools, churches, markets, communications networks, and government buildings.
Nearly all attacks were confined to Nigeria’s arid north, which is suffering from lack of development, widespread poverty, and unemployment.
Reuters has recently quoted Nobel prize winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka saying that some politicians in the north of Nigeria "conjured up a Frankenstein" by initially supporting the group.
Boko Haram’s real strength, according to Ms. Donnelly of Chatham House, is its ability to stay alive by constantly switching tactics.
“Boko Haram has kept evolving and changing,” she says. “It’s constantly adapting to the security environment.”
Sunday's attacks occurred 25 miles outside of Maiduguri, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency, and a town that had been the group’s original home base.
Civilian vigilante groups opposed to Boko Haram have recently formed in Maiduguri with the support of the Nigerian Army.
One vigilante, Usman Musa, told reporters on Monday in Maiduguri that his group traveled about 20 miles to Konduga where they fought with heavily-armed militants. He said four of his comrades were killed.
“I don't know about the soldiers,” he added. “But it was a very bad incident.”
Material from newswires was used in this report.