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Boko Haram Militants Have Surrounded a Major Nigerian City

Residents of the Borno State capital expect an attack soon in what could be the largest and most symbolic seizure yet by the group.
Photo by Sunday Alamba/AP

A month after declaring an Islamic State-like caliphate in Northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have reportedly surrounded the Borno State capital of Maiduguri, where residents expect an attack on what could be the group's largest and most symbolic seizure yet.

Founded in 2002, Boko Haram, which roughly translates to "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language, has killed thousands of people in northeastern Nigeria in the last five years. As its control in the region has expanded, Boko Haram has been met with an ineffective but equally brutal response from the Nigerian Army, which Amnesty International has accused of committing war crimes.


Fighting has spread across the Eastern border into Cameroon, where the government estimated that 100 Boko Haram fighters were killed last weekend in clashes with its troops. On Friday, the Nigerian military reportedly killed 200 militants and a senior Boko Haram commander during in a battle in Konduga, a town about 20 miles outside of Maiduguri.

Maiduguri has long been a power base for Boko Haram, where experts say the group maintains a key network of sympathizers among its residents. The Kanuri ethnic group concentrated in Borno State has long felt neglected by Nigeria's central government in Abuja and its commercial capital of Lagos.

Graphic Video Implicates Nigerian Military in War Crimes While Battling Boko Haram. Read more here.

"The insurgents have surrounded Maiduguri and are nursing the ambition of attacking the city from all directions," the Borno Elders Forum said in a statement released this week.

"The insurgents have rendered impassable almost all the roads leading to Maiduguri," they said.

Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at Red24 and member of the Nigeria Security Network, told VICE News that the group's fighters, who are adept at brutal smash and grab attacks, would probably have trouble maintaining control of Maiduguri, home to more than 1 million people.

"If Boko Haram was indeed to capture Maiduguri, it would be highly unlikely that the sect would have the operational capacity to actually hold the town, particularly against any sustained counteroffensives by the Nigerian military," Cummings said.


But, he added, "It does seem to be the case that, from an operational perspective, Boko Haram has strengthened over the past few weeks."

Nigerian forces and Boko Haram have battled for weeks over control of Bama, the second-largest city in Borno State. The Nigerian military claims the city has not fallen, but residents report Nigeria's stepped up campaign of air raids has done little to dislodge militants from government buildings and police stations.

"We are convinced the Federal Government of Nigeria has not shown sufficient political will to fight Boko Haram and rescue us from the clutches of the insurgents."

In Maiduguri, despite Boko Haram telegraphing their intent to enter, the Nigerian army has been largely unable to convince residents, who now include thousands displaced from Bama, that they can defend it.

"There could be as many as 3,000 in the periphery, and an attack could involved 1,500 fighters," Jacob Zenn an Africa analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, told VICE News. "They can take advantage of exaggerating the attack by making it appear as if they are larger in number if they strategically target areas like police stations and take control of mosques."

Poorly organized and beset by corruption, government officials and troops in the area are deeply afraid of the militants, who have mirrored the Islamic State in their use of public executions as a weapon of war. After taking Bama, Boko Haram reportedly began killing locals it said were not sufficiently eager to support the group.


Zenn said the situation in Maiduguri is reminiscent of Mosul, Iraq prior to its capture by Islamic State fighters, calling it a scenario where the "government decides to book it rather than risk getting beheaded."

Family members of soldiers stationed at the city's main barracks have fled, leaving troops in a state of siege. They are defending against an enemy that could attack tomorrow or not for several months.

"I'm not confident they have high moral," Zenn said. "Mutiny is a major concern."

Nigerians are growing increasingly exasperated with the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, who has made little progress toward locating more than 250 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from a school in the Borno State town of Chibok in April. Their capture spurred a global campaign to "Bring Back Our Girls," and appeared at the time to be a turning point in the conflict. Instead, Boko Haram it appears has only strengthened.

"We are convinced the Federal Government of Nigeria has not shown sufficient political will to fight Boko Haram and rescue us from the clutches of the insurgents which may ultimately lead to the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Borno," said the BEF.

In August, a month after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram's purported head Abubakar Shekau declared territory under their control would also be considered part of a caliphate. In a video released at the time, Shekau extolled the Islamic State and characterized the two groups as brothers in arms.


Five African Countries Declare 'War' Against Boko Haram. Read more here. 

Salafism is often used interchangeably with Wahhabism to describe conservative, literalist interpretations of Muslim texts. Wahhabism is particularly entrenched in Gulf States, most notably in Saudi Arabia.

Despite placing themselves in the global Salfist jihadi movement, Boko Haram has had trouble capturing the attention of would-be overseas comrades. French intervention in Mali in 2013 disrupted links between the group and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), one of the few such alliances Boko Haram had established. However, according to Zenn, ties to fighters in the Sahara still exist, buttressed by roaming mercenaries from Chad, Sudan, and Mali as well as longstanding business ties in the region.

"They do seek Muslim legitimacy and cite Koranic verses, and they are rooted in Salafism, but they don't seem to have attracted any support from outside areas," David Cook, Professor of Islamic Studies and author of Understanding Jihad, told VICE News.

"Al Shabaab in Somalia and AQIM receive support from outside, and they have sections for volunteers and representatives in Europe," Cook said. "Boko Haram has none of that and their web presence is dependent on outside sources and media."

"On regular jihadi websites you hardly ever read anything about Boko Haram, I haven't been able to find any fatwas," related to Boko Haram, he added.


Cummings points out Shekau, like nearly all West Africans, is not from Quraysh lineage (descendants of the tribe to which Muhammad belonged), meaning he traditionally wouldn't be allowed to become a caliph. Al-Baghdadi, like many in Iraq, can make that claim. There's even a sense among observers that some Salafists don't take black African movements with the same seriousness as ones with more direct Arab influences.

That isolation from conflicts in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East has also allowed the violence in Northeastern Nigeria to fester and Boko Haram to grow on its own, Zenn said.

"Since 2009, Boko Haram has been stronger than the year before," said Zenn. "Based on that, it is likely that Boko Haram could take Maiduguri."

If Maiduguri falls, it would be the first time since the Nigerian Civil War, which ended in 1970, that a state capital was in the hands of government opponents.

Ruling Maiduguri would likely require a shift in Boko Haram's priorities to further mimic the Islamic State, which has set up Sharia-based bureaucracies for matters ranging from the mundane to criminal charges in areas under its control.

"I wouldn't expect them to start implementing social services, they just seek to control towns through force and become the de facto military there," said Zenn. "People don't need the government so much — they already need to make their own food and do things on their own."

Nigeria's Government is Losing the War Against Boko Haram. Read more here. 

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford