Suspected members of the rebel sect Boko Haram stormed an agricultural college in Yobe, northeastern Nigeria, on Sunday, killing at least 40 in the latest of a string of attacks that have rocked northern Nigeria.
The surge in violence comes amid a four-month state of emergency covering three states in northeastern Nigeria, and after a spate of summer slaughters, including what appeared to be the gunning down of school children and of Muslims considered too religiously moderate, even as they prayed in their mosque.
Boko Haram has increasingly set its sights on civilian targets, prompting many Nigerians to question claims by the government and the military that they are winning the war against violent extremism.
Though exact numbers are hard to verify, Boko Haram and its affiliates are thought to have killed thousands since it first launched an Islamist insurgency in 2009.
Initially established a decade ago as a religious movement opposed to Western culture, Boko Haram has since morphed into a militant group determined to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
The group rose to international prominence in 2010 and 2011 when it carried out a series of deadly attacks against the Nigerian government and detonated a car bomb after crashing into a United Nations building in Abuja, the capital.
The gunmen in Sunday’s attack are reported to have killed dozens of students as they slept and rounded up others for execution. Several more students were injured trying to flee.
The attacks also come as Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation, top oil producer, and second largest economy – prepares to celebrate its 53rd year of independence amid concerns that Boko Haram is planning more attacks to coincide with the national holiday on Tuesday.
Since declaring a state of emergency May 14, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has sought to crush Boko Haram through the enlistment of civilian vigilante groups and the deployment of 8,000 soldiers supported by fighter jets and helicopter gunships to carry out what one observer told the Monitor amounted to a “scorched-earth campaign” in parts of the north where the group mostly bases itself.
Due to a virtual media blackout in these conflict areas, little information can be confirmed, and many believe that figures released by the army vastly overstate the amount of Boko Haram casualties, while underestimating civilian casualties and losses sustained by Nigerian armed forces.
Though the May military offensive initially succeeded in driving Boko Haram from major towns and some of its bases outside urban areas, the movement has since unleashed a revenge campaign against civilians – Muslim and Christian alike – accused of aiding security forces.
The relative strength of Boko Haram is unclear. Even though some analysts say it appears to be growing more lethal by the day, precious little is known about its leadership, organizational structure, funding streams, and membership.
At any given time, a mosaic of splinter groups may be carrying out attacks under the banner of Boko Haram.
Even “Boko Haram” – a phrase borrowed from the Hausa language native to northern Nigeria – is an unofficial moniker that the group’s core members do not use, preferring its official Arabic name of “Jamā'a Ahl al-sunnah li-da'wa wa al-jihād.”
There is some evidence in recent weeks that after a string of military setbacks, more Nigerians are skeptical of a government strategy that is seen as overly aggressive.
“Many of them [Boko Haram fighters] must be destroyed,” said Mohammed Shehu, a student in Abuja who is from Borno state, the heartland of the Boko Haram insurgency, “But the underlying problems are also social, political and economic," he says. “You cannot use the army for these things.”
While Nigerians debate how best to deal with Boko Haram, the Nigerian government’s counter-terrorism allies abroad are eager to see the group defeated as soon as possible. President Obama has commented on how Boko Haram's focus on killing civilians of all ages is especially ugly.
Since June, the US government has been offering $23 million worth of rewards for information and on key leaders of terrorist organizations in West Africa as part of the US State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, heads the list which reads like a who’s-who of prominent jihadists responsible for a string of deadly attacks and high-profile kidnapping throughout North and West Africa.
The US government is offering up to $7 million for information leading to the location of Shekau, some $2 million higher than Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as "Mr. Marlboro," a veteran jihadi in the Sahel linked to deadly attacks on Western oil and nuclear facilities. He is believed to have been involved in the hostage crisis at an Algerian gas facility in January.
The call for information earlier this year marks the first time that the US is offering cash in exchange for information on groups in West Africa, and may suggest a shift in US thinking regarding threats emanating from groups like Boko Haram.
Until recently, most analysts viewed terror cells in West Africa as domestic groups with local agendas that pose little direct threat to the US. But some of these core assumptions about the limited ambitions of groups like Boko Haram have been called into question amid claims that they are collaborating with transnational terrorist groups operating in the Sahara and Sahel.
In August, a Nigerian army spokesman told journalists that an intelligence report showed that Shekau may have died between July 25 and Aug. 3 as a result of a gunshot wound sustained when Nigerian soldiers raided a Boko Haram base in northeastern Nigeria on June 30.
But last week a video emerged in which the rebel leader is taunting the Nigerian army, dismissing claims of this death.
According to Nigerian officials, investigations of the video’s authenticity are still ongoing. A similar claim of his death in 2009 turned out to be untrue.