A report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the upsurge of Islamic radicalism in Nigeria.
When a student-led Islamic sect launched an armed uprising last month with the aim of setting up a Taliban-style Muslim state in northern Nigeria, the authorities were swift to quell the insurrection.
However, political analysts and security officials fear the emergence of the Al Sunna Wal Jamma (Followers of the Prophet) group may be an indication that extremist Islamic groups have found enough foothold in Nigeria to make Africa’s most populous country a theatre for worse sectarian violence than it has seen in recent years and acts of terrorism.
“What I find striking is that the group had operated in Nigeria for some time, had a cell network of members that included highly educated people and could use weapons,” said Ike Onyekwere, a political analyst.
“Though they appear to have been put to flight, there is a chance they might still regroup and emerge in another, perhaps more deadly form,” he added.
Strangers with no respect for traditions
Residents in Kanamma, a small town in Yobe State in northeast Nigeria, recall that the “strangers” first set up camp in the outskirts of the small town near the Niger border a year ago. They would come into town to preach to the people about how to attain Islamic purity.
However, the incomers showed a lack of respect for local traditions, especially property rights, and this led to growing friction with the local population.
The young militants farmed anywhere and fished in fishponds on the bank of the Yobe River owned by particular families. They dismissed the complaints of local people by saying that “everything belongs to Allah”, Rabiu Usman, a Kanama resident, told IRIN.
Reports of these problems finally reached the authorities and Yobe governor Abba Ibrahim decided to intervene. The governor told reporters he had already initiated moves to peacefully disband the group when it unexpectedly resorted to violence in late December.
Attacks leave 18 dead
The Al Sunna Wal Jama group attacked the police stations in Kanamma and nearby Geidam, killing two policemen. They stripped the buildings of guns and ammunition and burned them to the ground. The group then retreated to a primary school in Kanamma where they hoisted the flag of Afghanistan, spoiling for more violence.
Nigerian army spokesman Colonel Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu, said troops were sent to tackle the militants in when it became clear they were “getting a bit too much for the police to handle”.
At least 18 people were killed during a fortnight of clashes. Most were Islamic militants, but three policemen and one member of a vigilante group on the Cameroonian border were also shot dead.
Many of the estimated 200 members of the sect are now in custody and others in are in flight.
The attention of the authorities and security agencies is now focussing on how the group emerged to become a threat to public security with little being known about them.
“We now want to find out how they got their arms and weapons training, who their backers are here in Nigeria and possibly abroad,” a senior security official close to the investigation told IRIN.
He said investigators were also hoping to unravel the apparently extensive network of cells that recruited members from places as varied as Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, Lagos, in the southwest, and neighbouring Niger.
Fatai Fagbemi, the Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of the northeast, told IRIN that most of the militants in police custody were children “of notable Nigerians”. But the police have so far refused to give out any of their names.
Nigeria’s volatile mix of religions and its history of repeated outbreaks of sectarian violence make authorities understandably nervous about the emergence of this pro-Taliban group.
The country’s population of more than 120 million people is almost evenly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south with a significant number of Animists in between.
In the past four years 12 states in northern Nigeria have adopted the strict Islamic or Shari’ah legal code. This prescribes harsh penalties including the amputation of limbs for stealing, stoning to death for adultery and public flogging for drinking alcohol.
The adoption of Shari’ah has heightened tensions and between Muslims and Christians and has led to repeated outbreaks of communal violence in which thousands of people have died.
Nigerian security agencies have in the past voiced concerns about the activities of certain Islamic preachers whom they feared were radicalising Muslims in parts of the north. Many were suspected of having links to terrorist groups and foreign organisations.
In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, several Afghan and Pakistani preachers and other residents were arrested and deported because, according to the authorities, they could not give satisfactory explanations of their mission in Nigeria.
The daily newspaper Punch reported at about the same time that Mohammed Suleiman al-Nalfi, wanted in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, had been arrested at Lagos airport in 2000 and handed over to US law enforcement agents.
Al-Nalfi has since pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism after revealing Al Qaeda links during his trial.
Security officials say an additional reason for increased vigilance is the fact that Nigeria was mentioned alongside Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia in a tape purportedly released by Osama bin Laden, the fugitive leader of Al Qaeda, as a country where Muslims need to be liberated.
Late in November 2003 the U.S. Consulate in Lagos even issued a warning, advising its citizens to avoid a popular shopping mall in an up-market district of the city, citing specific intelligence of a likely terror attack.
According to Soji Olaniyan, a doctorate student in international affairs at the University of Lagos, Nigeria because of its peculiar make-up, large population and increasingly strategic position as Africa’s largest oil producer, could become a target of destabilisation from abroad.
“This might include but may not necessarily be limited to terrorist attacks,” he told IRIN. “In fact, in most of the countries said to have been mentioned by bin Laden there have already been terrorist attacks and Nigeria has every reason to watch it,” he added.