VOICES OF BOKO HARAM: Exclusive interview with Nigeria’s Jihadis

_73205156_6b83ca3c-bf81-43e0-beb2-c503274e87e2At least 20 people were killed in a suspected Boko Haram suicide bomb attack in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, this week
In a dusty prison compound fringed by mango trees in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram militants give a rare glimpse into the circumstances that led their sect to embark on mass murder.
Speaking in some of their first press interviews, members of the terrorist organisation, which gained global notoriety last year with the abduction of more than 200 teenage schoolgirls, say they were drawn to the group by a thirst for “Islamic knowledge.”
Some of the prisoners have concluded that it was a lack of such knowledge — together with the maniacal character of Abubakar Shekau, the group’s frontman for the past six years — that turned Boko Haram into such a nihilistic force, spreading terror across vast swaths of Nigeria’s remote northeast and beyond. Human rights abuses by security forces also played a role.
Sitting on a classroom porch inside the prison compound, a burly former miller from a remote town in northeastern Borno state, immaculately turned out in a white tunic and smelling strongly of cologne, tells how he joined Boko Haram, saying he was searching for a jihad from a young age to satisfy his desire to “die and go to paradise”.
“I tried to join many groups. But none of them spoke to my objective,” the 34-year old remembers. Then he encountered Nigeria’s Taliban, a now defunct group whose surviving members were incorporated into Boko Haram after a shortlived insurrection was crushed. “They were a group of like-minded people who were looking for paradise,” he says.
The former miller is among a group of prisoners, all held at a secret location. He is taking part in the first stages of a de-radicalisation program intended eventually to reach thousands of captured combatants.
Designed by Fatima Akilu, a forensic psychologist working in the national security adviser’s office, the programme provides religious counselling, vocational training and teaching tailored to the widely divergent levels of education among members.
It is the soft side of a counter-terrorism strategy, which on the military front has seen the Nigerian army — with help from South African mercenaries and troops from neighbouring countries — drive Boko Haram from much of the territory it claimed as a caliphate last year.
Nigeria map
Now in jail on 13 counts — including bank robbery and attacking police stations — the white-clad miller describes how he was arrested in 2011 at a military roadblock when crossing northern Nigeria to visit his family. Boko Haram members had been scattered by the security forces at the time and he had taken cover in the ancient city of Kano.
Like other prisoners — some of whom were swept up in mass arrests and deny membership of Boko Haram — the miller says 2009 was a tipping point.
The refusal of members to abide by a police directive that year to wear motorcycle helmets triggered a bloody confrontation between the group and the security forces.
In the ensuing crackdown, Boko Haram’s founder, Mohamed Yusuf — a peripatetic preacher who had criss-crossed Nigeria’s north for years to gather a following — was killed in police custody. Hundreds of Yusuf’s followers, known as Yusufiyas, were killed that year in Maiduguri, the group’s original base.

The miller says Yusuf was a man who railed against injustice but who had steered the group away from armed insurrection. “He had an eloquence and charisma that once he preached you were in.”
Yusuf’s death delivered the leadership of Boko Haram to Abubakar Shekau, a man who the prisoner says “bore grudges” and is “mentally ill”.
For the miller, personal attention given to him by the prison governor drew him into the rehabilitation programme, where he has had an opportunity to debate aspects of the Koran, and further his education.
Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf, left, was succeeded as leader by Abubakar Shekau
Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf, left, was succeeded as leader by Abubakar Shekau
“It has changed the way I think,” he says. “Sometimes when a blind man is walking around there is a hole in front of him. It takes a person with eyesight to stop him from falling in that hole.”
Another prisoner, the most senior member of the group, said the Boko Haram leader recruits from disenfranchised, often illiterate, young men desperate to escape the tedium of rural poverty. In some cases, these men are persuaded that the best way out, to paradise, can only be attained through jihad.
“He comes with what they see as superior knowledge. For some of them it is a means to do something. They have nothing else in their life,” says the man, who cannot be named for security reasons. He adds that after weeks of debate with learned imams brought into the prison as counsellors “we now understand he has very little knowledge”.
“A lot of the group are forced to be there and among them many are not happy”
Some imprisoned members had until recently remained in contact with the Boko Haram leadership using smuggled phones, helping them sustain their belief in the group’s ideology. It also gave them advanced knowledge of last year’s plan to abduct the Chibok schoolgirls. They were told the girls would be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the release of captured commanders.
Many of the prison inmates, whose arrests predate the worst of recent carnage, were repulsed by the abduction and rape of girls and slaughter of innocent civilians, the most senior Boko Haram member says. Opposition to such tactics and other disagreements within the group could ultimately help end the conflict.
“It will take time. But one of the ways to end it is to use people within the group to sabotage it from inside. The way to do that is to challenge the leadership of Shekau,” he says. “A lot of the group are forced to be there and among them many are not happy.”
8By William Wallis

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