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‘Boko Haram Is a Devil’: Embedded with Troops in Nigeria's Ongoing Offensive

At an abandoned Maiduguri airport in northeast Nigeria, a platoon prepares and what has become a de facto staging base for a series of military counter offensives against Boko Haram.
April 13, 2015, 7:45pm
Photo by VICE News

VICE's Kaj Larsen wasrecently embedded with Nigeria's army as members battled Boko Haram. The militant Islamist insurgents have wreaked havoc on cities, towns, villages, and the countryside in northeastern Nigeria. In his first dispatch, Larsen, a former Navy SEAL, reported from a schoolhouse turned military outpost. Here he reports from an airport in Maiduguri, now closed because of attacks from Boko Haram.

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Read part one on this series here: A Battle of Two Schoolhouses in Nigeria's War Against Boko Haram

Pvt. Jeremiah Friday sits with his Czechoslovakian-made AK-47 at the abandoned Maiduguri airport in northeast Nigeria. Maiduguri Airport, once a thriving civilian hub, has been closed for two years because of attacks by Boko Haram militants. Dilapidated and shot out, it's now become a de facto staging base for a series of military counter offensives. Jerry, as his squad mates call him, is a proud ranger in the 72nd paratroop unit based out of Makudi in Benue state. His unit has been moved to the northeast portion of the country for the current military operations.

Along with 300 of his fellow soldiers, Jerry is preparing for war.

"We will defeat Boko Haram," he told VICE News. "We will take the fight to the enemy and defeat them."

The platoon, living in tents in the crumbling former passenger terminal surrounded by crates of RPG weapons and ammunition, are part of a reinvigorated Nigerian Army offensive designed to wipe out the militant group that has launched more than 500 attacks in this small city alone, and is responsible for thousands more throughout this volatile region of Africa.

"When the Boko Haram started, they were like burning churches, so people thought they were Muslims," Jerry said. "Who are these people? They fight the Christians, they fight the Muslims … we believe they are just devils, they don't have heart. They are not Christian, to me they are not Muslim."

Pvt. Jeremiah Friday 

Nigeria shares a northern border with Chad and Cameroon. While Boko Haram is a predominantly Nigerian organization, the group — whose name loosely translates to "Western education is forbidden," and has pledged ideological allegiance to al Qaeda in the past and the Islamic State militant group most recently — has been using a porous border to both seek refuge and conduct operations in all three countries. Recently, the three nations launched a cooperative military effort to eradicate its influence. The 72nd Paratroop regiment commanded by the 7th Division is part of that effort.

The soldiers are trained in various skills, from rigging to special operations to intelligence. Today Jerry and his squad are practicing driving a series of 4x4 armored vehicles mounted with DShK machine guns for an upcoming assault on a village occupied by Boko Haram militants. A Russian-made MI-24 Hind gunship flies maneuvers overhead. The vehicles and accompanying air support were part of a massive increase in logistics, supplies, and armaments as the campaign against Boko Haram reaches its zenith.

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Despite having one of the strongest emerging market economies in Africa, in large part thanks to the oil revenue generated in the southern river delta region, the economic disparity between a more wealthy South and a poorer North has meant Nigeria has been plagued by instability and insecurity.

The country is also divided almost evenly between a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north, which is the birthplace of Boko Haram. The movement began in early 2002, here in Maguduri, under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf. When Yusuf was killed in 2009, he was seceded by his deputy Abubakar Shekau. Under Shekau's leadership, the group's operational capability and tempo has increased dramatically, and an estimated 5,000 people have been killed in the period since.

The most notable act was in April 2014, when some 276 schoolgirls were abducted from the nearby city of Chibok. This sparked a viral social media campaign, #bringbackourgirls, that even Michelle Obama participated in. But the result of what critics call hashtag activism was essentially nothing. The campaign was launched one year ago this week, yet more than 200 of the girls remain missing.

On the ground in Maiguduri, the residents have been living in terror. At the site of a double Boko Haram bombing in a neighborhood called Gomari Bintu Sugar, the charred remnants of cinder blocks remain as a reminder of the bombing that ripped through the popular marketplace over a year ago.

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Alhaji Abdullahi Musa describes the loss of his son. "My boy was 22, a student of university, he responded to the first bomb, to assist the victims," he said. "Then the terrorists exploded the second one. He was a rescuer, my son."

Boko Haram has had an impact on almost all of the residents of this small community. Many of them are internal refugees from smaller Nigerian cities and fled out of fear. One resident whose wife kidnapped and whose 10-year-old son was taken to a Boko Haram training camp, simply says, "Boko Haram is a devil. There is no other way to explain it."

Back at the army outpost at the airport, at 4pm, the classic call to prayer plays over the loudspeaker of a mosque across the pockmarked road where passengers used to arrive for flights. About five of the 12 soldiers who are living in this portion of the abandoned airport shuffle across the street in flip flops for evening prayer. Their Christian counterparts continue to clean weapons, text girlfriends, and cheer as their favorite premiere league team plays on a TV hooked to a thin cable wire. Jerry, who is Christian, quietly scrubs his boots from the Sisyphean struggle against the dust.

When asked about his fellow soldiers who are Muslim and if this matters in the fight against Boko Haram, he replies, "Muslim, Christian, is same, we are all soldiers, and we are determined to defeat Boko Haram. They are not Muslim, they are insurgents, and I fight for all my country."

Watch the VICE News documentary The War Against Boko Haram here: