Published: 13:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 19 July 2011
Christians at risk as Islamists plan major terrorist campaign in Nigeria
Country/Region: Nigeria, Africa
Islamist militant group Boko Haram are stepping up attacks in Northern Nigeria, with churches and Christians among their main targets, ahead of plans to mark the anniversary of their founder’s death at the end of the month in a “big way”.
Churches have been targeted in anti-Christian violence over recent months
The threat comes amid a spate of deadly bomb blasts on churches, police bases, markets, and bars as well as the assassination of Christians, politicians, security personnel and Muslim critics. Boko Haram, which is also known as “the Nigerian Taliban”, is fighting to establish an Islamic state in the North.
Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, where Boko Haram was formed in 2002, has been worst hit by the violence, which is spreading to other Northern states. The group has carried out at least 20 deadly attacks in Maiduguri since the beginning of the year, forcing the state university to close on 11 July and thousands of people to flee.
Two churches in Suleja, Niger State, were attacked in the space of two days. Four people were killed and seven more seriously injured in an explosion at one church during a committee meeting after the service on 10 July. The blast was so severe that a neighbouring church was also damaged. The following day, a bomb was thrown into the grounds of another church, damaging the outer walls, during a prayer service. Nobody was injured on that occasion.
On 7 June, church leader David Usman and Hamman Andrew, the assistant secretary of his Maiduguri church, were shot dead. Gunmen reportedly arrived on motorbikes as the church was concluding a meeting; they shot Mr Andrew and ordered that someone phone and inform the pastor. He rushed to the church, where the gunmen were lying in wait to shoot him also.
Another church in Maiduguri was bombed twice in the space of a week; ten people died in the blasts on the 1 and 7 June.
Churches are being guarded by security personnel, who are stopping and searching people after a woman pretending to be a Christian worshipper was caught trying to smuggle a bomb into a church in Maiduguri on 26 June.
Some churches are reportedly shutting down or rescheduling their services in a bid to outmanoeuvre militants who plan their attacks around service times to cause most carnage.
Boko Haram, which means “Western (or un-Islamic) education is forbidden”, was founded by Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf, a religious teacher. On 26 July 2009, the group launched an uprising in Maiduguri that was quashed by the military. Their founding leader was arrested and died in police custody on 31 July, prompting the group to declare, on 9 August, that they had “started a Jihad in Nigeria”. They threatened to render the country ungovernable and warned that Nigeria would be Islamised by force.
In June 2010, Boko Haram formalised its links with al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is seeking to gain “strategic depth” in sub-Saharan Africa; the latter’s leader Abu Mousab Abdel Wadoud pledged that the international jihadist movement would assist Boko Haram with weapons and training. Terrorism analyst Yossef Bodansky warned in August 2010 that the AQIM link could lead to the emergence of “spectacular terrorism” al-Qaeda style, such as suicide bombings, which had not previously been seen in Nigeria. On 16 June this year, his prediction was proved correct as Boko Haram perpetrated the first ever suicide bombing in the country. Eight people were killed and dozens wounded when the bomber targeted the police headquarters in Abuja.
Attacks have been waged against the authorities with increasing intensity “because they are not protecting Islam”, Boko Haram said in a statement in April this year. They said:
We will never accept any system of governance apart from the one described by Islam because that is the only way Muslims can be liberated.
A further statement, issued in June, warned that Boko Haram “commandos” had completed their training in Somalia and would consequently be “stepping up attacks in the coming weeks in all northern states”.
The group has now threatened to mark the 31 July anniversary of Yusuf’s death in a “big way”; the authorities are bracing themselves for a major terror campaign by the group at the end of the month.
Christian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose re-election in April sparked widespread anti-Christian violence, has offered to open talks with Boko Haram. But the group has refused to engage in dialogue, saying that sharia law must be implemented across Northern Nigeria before this can take place.
A joint military task force has been established to combat the militants, but soldiers have been heavily criticised for allegedly committing human rights abuses and shooting innocent civilians in their efforts to quash the uprising.
President Jonathan is now coming under mounting pressure to declare a state of emergency in Borno State to bring the escalating situation under control. The battle against Boko Haram looks set to become one of the defining features of his presidency; it is one he must win to prevent Nigeria from descending into lawlessness and ever-deepening division between the majority-Muslim North and predominantly Christian South.
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