The armed men dragged Musa Muhammad out of his house and ordered him to lie face down on the ground. Then they grabbed his son. After asking his name, the men issued their judgment. “I heard three gunshots — pop, pop, pop,” Muhammad recalled, his voice trembling, his fingers in the shape of a pistol. “My son was dead, killed in front of me.”
His assailants were not the radical Islamists who have brutalized this town. They were government security forces sent to protect the residents.
In the epicenter of one of Africa's most violent religious extremist movements, civilians are caught in a guerrilla conflict that has shattered families and communal relationships. The Boko Haram, a homegrown group with suspected ties to al-Qaeda, is assassinating people nearly every day, targeting Christians, soldiers, police, even astrologers as it seeks to weaken the Western-allied government and install Islamic sharia law in this nation.
But the security forces have also carried out extrajudicial killings, imprisoned hundreds on flimsy grounds, looted and burned shops and houses, according to victims, local officials and human rights activists.
“We are trapped in between the Boko Haram and the security forces,” said Hauwa Yerima, a human rights activist. “Life has become so difficult for us in Maiduguri.”
She and Muhammad asked that their grandfathers’ last names be used instead of their surnames because they feared reprisals by the military or police. People here often have multiple surnames.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the security units, which are known as the Joint Military Task Force or JTF, denied the allegations. He said that soldiers follow appropriate rules of engagement and that there “has not been any established case of extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions or harassment by the JTF forces.”
This sprawling northeastern town is the birthplace and stronghold of the Boko Haram. From here, what began as a nonviolent Islamist uprising fueled by poverty, inequality and government corruption in 2002 has grown into a shadowy insurgency that U.S. and Western officials say has increasing connections to al-Qaeda affiliates. The militia has also sought to exploit long-standing tensions between Muslims and Christians in the northern part of this oil-rich nation of 160 million.
But as Boko Haram becomes more lethal, the actions by the security forces could harm their efforts to gather vital intelligence to thwart the extremists, local officials said. The group has no shortage of supporters here, even as their attacks have intensified in recent months.
“In a guerrilla war, you need the help of the local population. But the security forces are alienating the people,” said Muhammad Abdullahi, the provincial director of religious affairs. “They are making their jobs more difficult for themselves.”
Two days earlier, a soldier shot and injured one of Abdullahi’s co-workers in the abdomen as he approached a checkpoint.
On that fall afternoon in Musa Muhammad’s neighborhood, Boko Haram militants ambushed and killed two soldiers on a nearby street. The security forces flooded in, rounding up youths, searching houses and firing guns in the air. They accused residents of being Boko Haram loyalists and harboring members. After the soldiers allowed Muhammad to stand up, he saw several bodies lying near a wall, he recalled.
The corpse of his 29-year-old son, who owned a small store, had been thrown on top.
Following a government crackdown in 2009, Boko Haram clashed with security forces in Maiduguri, attacking police stations. That same year, its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in police custody, cementing the metamorphosis into a violent movement. Since 2010, the extremists have bombed churches, mosques, banks, government and U.N. buildings, and even schools, killing more than 1,500 people.
The nature of violence
The militia’s ambitions and brutality appear to be growing. Boko Haram, whose name roughly means “Western education is a sin,” killed more than 815 people in the first nine months of 2012, more than 2010 and 2011 combined, according to Human Rights Watch. The latest victims died Friday, when suspected militants attacked a village near here, killing at least 15 people, including women and children, slitting many of their throats.
Once focused on northeastern Nigeria, the group has widened its attacks across the north. Suicide bombings, a rarity in West Africa, have become more common. Among its new targets are cellphone towers and mobile phone company offices, which the militia accuses of aiding government security agencies monitoring its members.
The group also appears to be seeking a bigger role in global jihad. Last month, its leader, Abubakar Shekau, in a propaganda video shown on extremist Web sites, expressed solidarity with al-Qaeda and its affiliates and threatened the United States, which in June placed him on its list of global terrorists.