LAGOS — The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town.
Having fled the larger part of their stronghold in Sambisa forest, the sect’s soldiers regrouped in Marte, a town 112 kilometers north of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s embattled northeastern Borno state. Although government officials say Marte was seized last Friday, local sources have confirmed that the militants began to occupy the town at the end of April.
“They [Boko Haram] have been in Marte for a long time strategizing,” said a local community member. “They came in large numbers last month, but more members recently joined following the offensive in Sambisa forest by the military.”
This is the fourth time Boko Haram has seized control of Marte, a key battleground for their six-year insurgency. The town is among several retaken in recent weeks by Nigeria’s military. Sources said on Saturday that the insurgents have hoisted their flags on the recaptured territory, and have been coordinating attacks from there.
All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”
Other indicators of possible cooperation have emerged in the months since ISIS accepted a pledge of fealty from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau that gave the group its first foothold in sub-Saharan Africa and expanded its efforts to create a global caliphate. In March a U.S.-based blog called TheWill that follows Nigerian events closely reported that Ibrahim Uwais, son of a highly respected former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, was to have left the country for Syria with his two wives and children to fight for ISIS. It is not known if he was affiliated with Boko Haram before he left. He is said to be a close friend of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” recruited by al Qaeda in 2009 to try to blow up an airliner over the United States.
Last month, ISIS released a video praising Boko Haram, and according to a report by the BBC, images posted on ISIS-linked social media accounts refer to Boko Haram as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), a name aimed at showing that ISIS has gained a firm stronghold beyond the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, Boko Haram has transformed its rudimentary online presence into a flashy ISIS-like propaganda tool.
Concerns have grown that if ISIS becomes more involved in the affairs of Boko Haram, the group’s mode of operation could change and this may reshape the conflict in Nigeria. Right now the African group is showing an ability to counterpunch in much the same way we’ve seen recently with ISIS operations in Iraq.
A group of heavily armed Boko Haram fighters late last Wednesday launched an offensive on Maiduguri which was repelled by troops from a military base on the outskirts of the city. But the attack, following recent victories of regional forces over the insurgents, came as a surprise to residents, including Borno state government officials, who accused the military of complacency.
“Our thinking was that every other place should have been blocked so that the insurgency would be curtailed to a restricted area. But that has not been the case, because the insurgents have been fleeing to other communities,” said Zannah Mustapha, the state deputy governor.
Intelligence obtained after the Wednesday attack, according to Mustapha, suggested that some 600 females found their way into Maiduguri, with the aim of carrying out multiple suicide bombings in the city. Local sources said the insurgents who invaded the metropolis numbered about 3,000 altogether. But none of these numbers could be confirmed.
Three of the women, believed to be teenagers, detonated their suicide belts at the front line on Wednesday, killing seven vigilante members and injuring several others, forcing the military to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the troubled city.
Officials said the curfew imposed on the city on Thursday, which was later relaxed for eight hours in the day, would continue until it is sure that the suspected female suicide bombers working for the insurgents have not infiltrated Maiduguri.
“Initially we were opposed to the suggestion made by the military; but when we received a security report that about 600 women have been kitted as suicide bombers and are to be sneaked into Maiduguri during the attack, coupled with the gory pictures of some of the women who detonated themselves during the attack, we had no option other than to okay the curfew,” Mustapha told The Daily Beast.
Before the foiled assault on Maiduguri, the insurgents had raided Bale and Kayamla villages where they killed at least 55 people and burned several homes after looting them,
Musa Kumbo, a resident of Kayamla, told AFP that at least 30 people were killed in the Boko Haram raid on that village and surrounding settlements.
“The attackers were heard shouting that they would come back and finish their operation once they were done with Maiduguri,” Kumbo said.
At least three soldiers, seven vigilantes, 18 civilians, and dozens of Boko Haram insurgents were killed during clashes in Maiduguri on Wednesday evening, said Yusuf Mohammed, a Maiduguri resident and social worker who took gruesome photographs of the attacks.
“The soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire with the militants, who experienced heavy losses as well,” he said. “Civilians were mostly killed by stray bullets, while the vigilantes where killed by three female bombers who targeted them.”
A vigilante member in the southern part of Borno state told Leadership, a national daily newspaper, that the terrorists had attacked and set ablaze five villages and slaughtered at least 20 persons near Gwoza, Boko Haram’s former headquarters, which was retaken by the Nigerian army in March.
“I had just returned from Gwoza area where I live and l can confirm to you that I left there after burying 20 persons slaughtered by Boko Haram terrorists in Valle and Jimnini hamlets near Kirawa village under Gwoza local government area,” said Mamman Bukar Karau, a local hunter and member of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria.
There have been reports in the local media that armed insurgents slaughtered four persons in a hamlet not far away from the strategic town of Monguno last Wednesday.
In Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State, 81 miles south of Maiduguri, officials said on Saturday that at least seven people were killed and 30 others seriously wounded when a female suicide bomber, believed to be about 10 years old, blew herself up at a bus station earlier in the day.
“These new attacks confirm that Boko Haram isn’t finished yet,” says a source who has been highly involved in relief efforts in Maiduguri and Monguno. “The 3,000 men who showed up for them in Maiduguri clearly prove that Boko Haram’s army is still intact, and can regroup at any time.”