The villagers knew the men in fatigues were not regular soldiers when they quietly slipped into town Wednesday night. They were Boko Haram militants, but it was too late to run.
“They calmed us down that we should not worry because they were in our community to preach Islam to us and not to kill us,” said Abuwar Yale, a farmer from the village of Bargari in northeastern Nigeria.
The carnage that followed is one of several attacks this week that have left hundreds of civilians dead and entire villages under siege -- suggesting that the Boko Haram insurgency has the funding it needs and that its operations are intensifying, with parts of the diffuse group emerging from hideouts in the bush and forest and setting up in more structured living spaces.
The government continues to say that Boko Haram will “very soon” be “history.” But local officials say Boko Haram is gaining strength and appears to be fighting to occupy parts of the northeast region – despite the imposition of an emergency rule by the Goodluck Jonathan administration a year ago.
In Bargari village on Wednesday night, the militants ordered the villagers to gather by the mosque, and many in the small farming community complied. The fighters then opened fire, killing at least 45 people before setting the houses ablaze and stealing the livestock.
In other villages this week, militants remained in place after the slaughter and are believed to have hoisted flags, claiming some lands for their own, according Muhammed Ali Ndume, a Nigerian senator.
Mr. Ndume represents the local government in Gwoza region where six villages were attacked early this week, leaving at least 300 people dead.
“The insurgents had taken over these communities and sacked virtually everyone out of their homes,” said Ndume. “Many had ran into Cameroon. Many had been killed, their homes burnt down.”
His region, he added, is connected to the state capital, Maiduguri, by roads too dangerous for even the Army to travel. Two bridges have been bombed. The military, he said, appears to have neither enough equipment nor personnel to defeat the heavily armed militants.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in the past five years, claiming it wants to install Islamic law in northern Nigeria, where its murderous actions now appear to have led some half-million people to flee their homes.
In the past five months the group has been especially violent, having set off car bombs in public targets near the capital Abuja, kidnapped 300 school girls, and continued with systematic attacks on villages in remote areas. Frustration with the government in northern Nigeria is palatable, but the vast majority of people fear and hate the insurgency more than the government's imposition of martial law.
Boko Haram emerged in 2002 as a nonviolent fundamentalist sect; it was nick-named “Boko Haram,” which roughly means “Western education is sin,” because of its aversion to all things Western. A 2009 battle with security forces left the group’s original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, dead on the streets, and set the insurgency in motion.
Since then the conflict has morphed many times, according Thomas Hansen, a senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a UK-based security consulting firm.
“The alleged killing of Yusuf and other Boko Haram supporters in July 2009 rallied more sympathizers to support the group and cemented anger against government,” Hansen said. “However, Yusuf’s killing also meant that the leadership of the group changed to become more radical in its approach.”
Femi Odekunle, professor of criminology and social sciences at the University of Abuja, says the problems in the northeast that helped incubate Boko Haram have never been truly addressed. Extreme poverty and distrust of the government in a country awash with oil and other resources not only fueled the Boko Haram insurgency, but also the civil war in the 1960s, an uprising in the 2000s, and other conflicts.
“The wealth and resources of Nigeria—the wealth is consumed by 10 percent of the population where about 90 percent of the population are virtually excluded,” said Odekunle. “The lower the number of the stakeholders in the polity, the higher the probability of insecurity."
Northern Nigerians say the conflict is getting worse. After fleeing the town of Bargari Wednesday night, Abuwar Yale, the farmer, returned to the village to find his family the next morning.
“We returned ... to find out if some of our people that we did not see in the bush were still alive,” he said. “But to our shock, we saw corpses of our people littering everywhere.”
Abdulkareem Haruna contributed to this report from Maiduguri.