Backlash likely in pursuit of Nigeria militants

November 7, 2011 - 1:10 PM
Nigeria Violence

RETRANSMISSION OF LON 803 FOR ALTERNATE CROP - In this image made from television provided by the state-run Nigerian Television Authority Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, corpses are seen laid out in Damatura, Nigeria, following a series of coordinated attacks Friday that killed at least 69 people and left a new police headquarters in ruins, government offices burned and symbols of state power destroyed. A radical Muslim sect known locally as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks in Borno and Yobe states, with the worst damage done in and around the city of Damaturu. (AP Photo/Nigerian Television Authority) NIGERIA OUT

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria faces a shapeless, shifting threat from a radical Muslim sect that has killed more than 100 people in recent days. While the country boasts one of Africa's strongest armies, a military crackdown could drive more supporters into the extremists' ranks.

The U.S. is now warning that the Boko Haram militants may strike next at luxury hotels in the capital of Abuja. Although the military is working to protect such sites, most of Boko Haram's leaders are hiding in neighboring countries and followers easily blend into the population.

The last major government attempt to eradicate Boko Haram in 2009 from this region at the crossroads of Cameroon, Niger and Chad led to hundreds of deaths — and wound up fueling the group's resurgence. The military's efforts to rein in the fighters this year also have prompted complaints of brutality and civilian deaths.

"The government has increased its military presence in northern states and the capital and it's clamping down, but this clamping down has also fueled tensions and I think the government needs to review its own actions to ensure its not exacerbating the situation any further," said Comfort Ero, a Kenya-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Boko Haram has been carrying out a string of targeted assassinations by gunmen on motorcycles and bombings in northeast Nigeria. At least 360 people have been killed in those attacks, according to an Associated Press count.

But in recent months, attacks claimed by the group also show a rising level of sophistication and planning — as well as a new willingness to use suicide bombers in its fight with the country's weak central government.

And the sect has expanded its targets to include Nigeria's sizable population of foreigners, drawn to a nation that remains a key supplier of crude oil to the U.S. An Aug. 26 suicide car bombing by the sect at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja killed 24 and wounded 116 others.

Suicide bombers were used again in Friday's attacks in Maiduguri and Damaturu that saw more than 100 people killed. Ero says the Nigerian government is left responding to attacks rather than preventing them.

"It's showing that it hasn't really got a tight grip of security," Ero said.

There's a large political component at play as well. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, rejects Western ideals like Nigeria's U.S.-styled democracy. Followers believe that democracy has destroyed the country with corrupt politicians.

That puts President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian who took power after the 2010 death of an elected Muslim leader, in a tight spot politically. The April election that saw Jonathan cement his hold on the presidency also sparked political and religious rioting across Nigeria's largely Muslim north that left 800 people dead.

While Jonathan is still supported in Nigeria's Christian south, he has never won the full trust of the predominantly Muslim north.

"For domestic political purposes, they do need to use a strong hand and have (the military) do what they can up there. If they don't, it's going to come back to Jonathan being seen as being really in over his head," said Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for the U.S. security think tank STRATFOR. "If he doesn't do that, his political enemies are really going to throw down on him."

Muslims across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million, have rejected the violence carried out by Boko Haram. Still, the group has drawn followers by calling Nigeria's government illegitimate and calling for strict implementation of Shariah law.

Calls for change have happened before in the history of the Muslim north, with revolutionaries drawing support from the people to overthrow corrupt leaders, said Murray Last, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University College of London who studies Nigeria's north.

However, Murray wrote in a recent essay that Boko Haram instead has forced its holy war on the populace, giving Nigeria a chance to combat the threat.

Still, he offered a stark warning: Boko Haram "is not an arcane throwback: It is modern and dangerous."

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Associated Press Nigeria correspondent Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.