BENISHEIK, Nigeria — The men from Boko Haram came tearing through this rural town, setting fire to houses, looting, shooting and yelling, “God is great!” residents and officials said. The gunmen shot motorists point-blank on the road, dragged young men out of homes for execution and ordered citizens to lie down for a fatal bullet.
When it was all over 12 hours later, they said, about 150 people were dead, and even one month later, this once-thriving town of 35,000 is a burned out, empty shell of blackened houses and charred vehicles.
Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist insurgent movement, remains a deadly threat in the countryside, a militant group eager to prove its jihadi bona fides and increasingly populated by fighters from Mali, Mauritania and Algeria, said the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima.
But about 40 miles away in Maiduguri, the sprawling state capital from where the militant group emerged, Boko Haram has been largely defeated for now, according to officials, activists and residents — a remarkable turnaround that has brought thousands of people back to the streets. The city of two million, until recently emptied of thousands of terrified inhabitants, is bustling again after four years of fear.
For several months, there have been no shootings or bombings in Maiduguri, and the sense of relief — with women lingering at market stalls on the sandy streets and men chatting under the shade of feathery green neem trees in the 95-degree heat — is palpable.
Boko Haram has been pushed out of Maiduguri largely because of the efforts of a network of youthful informer-vigilantes fed up with the routine violence and ideology of the insurgents they grew up with.
“I’m looking at these people: they collect your money, they kill you — Muslims, Christians,” said the network’s founder, Baba Lawal Ja’faar, a car and sheep salesman by trade. “The Boko Haram are saying, ‘Don’t go to the school; don’t go to the hospital.’ It’s all rubbish.”
Governor Shettima has recruited the vigilantes for “training” and is paying them $100 a month. In the sandy Fezzan neighborhood of low cinder block houses, where the informer group was nurtured over the past two years, the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes from shootouts with the Islamists, a visible sign of the motivations for fighting the insurgents.
“The suffering of our people was just too much,” said the group’s third-in-command, Mr. Ja’faar’s younger brother Kalli, standing on a street corner in Fezzan as others nodded.
The elder Mr. Ja’faar moves around discreetly, as people are afraid to be seen with him.
“People will run away from me because I am catching the Boko Haram,” the elder Mr. Ja’faar, 32, said, smiling during a nighttime interview indoors. But he seemed unafraid of the danger, lifting his bright yellow polo shirt to reveal a thin leather strip around his waist, which bore an amulet. He explained that he carried “plenty of magic,” 30 charms, to protect himself.
The network’s intimate knowledge of the community enables it to quickly recognize Boko Haram members and turn them over to the Nigerian military; dozens have been turned over, members of the informer group said.
The military, known as the Joint Task Force, or J.T.F., has been unable to defeat the Boko Haram on its own despite four years of a bloody counterinsurgency campaign that has been widely criticized for the indiscriminate detention and killing of civilians.
By contrast, the vigilante group’s leaders say, some of their recruits are repentant former Boko Haram members, making it easier to correctly identify and catch the insurgents. The vigilante group now calls itself the “Civilian J.T.F.”
For years, analysts have urged Nigerian officers not to conduct deadly crackdowns and wide arrests, but instead to recruit civilians in the destitute northern neighborhoods where Boko Haram has gained ground. That outcome appears now to have occurred spontaneously, urged on by the governor, according to interviews here.
Mr. Ja’faar calmly boasted, “I catch more than 900 people,” a number that could not be confirmed independently. But the army’s own large-scale roundups and killings of young men have tailed off recently, officials and activists in Maiduguri said.
The evolving strategy of utilizing the Civilian J.T.F. echoes the tactic that quelled the long-running insurgency in southern Nigeria, where rebels preyed on oil installations for years, shaking the Nigerian government, before they were bought off by the federal authorities in 2010.
“The Civilian J.T.F. has driven Boko Haram into the bush,” said Maikaramba Saddiq of the Civil Liberties Organization in Maiduguri, a frequent critic of the military.
Indeed, some activists wonder whether the military is more committed to preserving, not ending, the conflict with Boko Haram in order to perpetuate the government spending that comes with it. In a point gingerly acknowledged by some officials, the country’s security services have grown accustomed to a $6 billion-plus national security budget, one-quarter of the government’s total budget, and have shown a surprising lack of alacrity in responding to some recent atrocities.
The killings inside and outside Benisheik, for example, inexplicably went on unimpeded for more than 10 hours before the army arrived, these activists say. Most of those killed were travelers waylaid by gunmen on the now-deserted and dangerous main highway from Maiduguri, bound hand and foot, and then shot in the head. The road is still littered with charred vehicles.
A senior official in Maiduguri said the army could now crush Boko Haram “in three weeks,” as the insurgents had been “cornered in one axis of the state.” Insisting that he not be identified for fear of retribution, he expressed puzzlement that the army had not yet eradicated Boko Haram, acknowledging that “at the top echelons they might be making money out of the insurgency.”
Before the Benisheik attack, the Islamists had been gathering for several days, and military officials were aware of it, asserted Mohammed Benisheikh, a lawyer whose brother was shot in the leg in the violence. He said that his family, one of the town’s most prominent, lost numerous vehicles and that its property had been burned in the attack.
The Nigerian Army declined to make its commanding officer in the Maiduguri sector available for an interview, and senior officers in the capital, Abuja, did not respond to phone calls or text messages.
For their part, the Civilian J.T.F. members said they were not in it for the money, but to protect their communities. On the city’s streets, ragged youths wielding machetes, sticks, garden implements and cutlasses can be seen checking traffic.
“There’s no going back,” said Mousbaf Adamu, 23, who sells ice at a roundabout near Government House in Maiduguri and was carrying a long, rough stick. “I’m ready to sacrifice my life for my people to be protected.”
The real work of the vigilante group occurs out of sight, in the identification of Boko Haram members that often occurs door to door.
“We know them by just looking at them,” said Hamisu Adamu, 40, who sells leather bag and is in charge of “discipline” for the group.
“Some of them may be our brothers, and we hand them to the military,” he said. So many, he claimed, that there are few Boko Haram members left in the city. “Inside of Maiduguri, it would be very difficult” for the insurgents to circulate, he said.
The governor, Mr. Shettima, agreed.
“The Civilian J.T.F. are a real game-changer,” Mr. Shettima said as he toured road construction projects in the sweltering low-rise city, cheered on from the roadside by groups of the young men to whom he handed out cash. “Now the Boko Haram are seeing the civilian population as their greatest enemy. These are local people who truly know who the Boko Haram are.”
In fact, some residents said the Benisheik attack of Sept. 17 was retaliation over an earlier confrontation between the Boko Haram and the Civilian J.T.F. in which eight insurgents were killed. Armed with weapons from the looted arsenals of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, like militant groups in Mali, the young Islamists went door to door that evening, looking for prey, the governor said.
“They said I should have to come lie down in front of them,” said Alhadji Jiji Abdallah, the brother of Mr. Benisheikh, the lawyer. “This is their system of killing.” But he refused, and ran. In the darkness, they shot him at close range, hitting him in the leg. They thought he was dead, he said.
“They don’t have any reason at all” for attacking us, he said from his hospital bed.
Boko Haram’s efforts in rural Nigeria are not likely to be finished, the Civilian J.T.F. notwithstanding. Twelve days after the Benisheik attack, gunmen killed more than 40 students at an agricultural college nearby, officials say. Once again, the gunmen went about unimpeded by the military, even though the region is under a state of emergency and secular state schools have been targeted by the Islamists many times before, angry residents said. Officials expect the group to strike again. “The only way they can gain respect in the international circle of jihadism is by unleashing such mayhem,” Mr. Shettima said.
On Sunday, Boko Haram militants killed 19 people, mostly traders, near the town of Gamboru Ngala on the border with Cameroon, according to residents and survivors. The gunmen, wearing military uniforms, set up a barricade early in the morning on the highway, about 60 miles Maiduguri. They forced people out of their vehicles and shot them at close range or slit their throats.
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