Nigeria is on high alert again after the radical Islamic group Boko Haram launched a fresh wave of terror attacks in northeastern Nigeria. The group is reportedly strengthening its ties to al Qaeda militants.
Boko Haram is stepping up its terror campaign
The militant group known as Boko Haram is the new vanguard of a radical Islamist tradition that has challenged the legitimacy of the northern Nigerian government for decades. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram means "modern education is a sin" in the local Hausa language.
Although its now deceased leader Mohammed Yusuf originally waged a peaceful rhetorical campaign against presumed western influence on Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has taken a violent turn in recent years. Like the Maitatsine movement that terrorized northern Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, Boko Haram has become involved in heavy fighting with the military and police.
Friday's bomb blasts in the city of Damaturu, which claimed the lives of some 150 people, were the deadliest in a spate of recent attacks. At the end of August, Boko Haram bombed the UN headquarters in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, killing 24 people.
The group's operatives are largely disaffected and disillusioned young men who, despite having graduated from school, remain unable to find work.
"The condition for joining Boko Haram was for you to surrender your school certificate to be destroyed before you become a member," Solomon Dalung, a lawyer and commentator, told Deutsche Welle.
"It means Boko Haram is not a group of vagabonds or uninformed persons."
Gripped by fear
For many observers, Boko Haram is a reaction against the social injustice and the corruption of the political class. In 2009, Mohammed Yusuf and his followers launched a campaign of violence in their stronghold of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, which is close to the borders with Cameroon and Chad.
Heavy fighting in Maiduguri in 2009 left hundreds dead
Human rights organizations estimate that at least 800 people lost their lives in the violence. Yusuf himself was shot dead after the military turned him over to the police. The massacre and extra-legal execution of Yusuf simply hardened Boko Haram's hatred for the security forces.
A year ago, Boko Haram once again called for political assassinations and bomb attacks on police stations and churches. According to a local woman who campaigns for the education of young girls, the people who live in Maiduguri are now gripped by terror.
"Even if you're in the office now your mind is outside," the woman told Deutsche Welle.
"More especially if you heard that there's a bomb blast ... is it in my area? What is happening with my children at school? Something of that sort. Then in the process of rushing home, accident here and there, you may come in contact with whatever is going on. So everyone is in fear."
People usually leave for home around 3 pm to avoid the re-enforced police checkpoints in the evening. Many residents of Maiduguri report that the security forces often harass innocent people. Most interview partners did not want to give their names because Boko Haram terrorists often kill people who talk about them negatively to the media.
The Christian minority also lives in fear. The Catholic cathedral was bombed twice in July.
"To be fair to the government, they have tried," Bishop Doeme Dashe told Deutsche Welle. "But there is much that needs to be done because you realize that you have a lot of security and these people are still carrying out attacks and nothing is happening to contain the situation. We really worry about that."
Christians and Muslims as well as civil society representatives and politicians seem to agree that a peaceful political solution is the way forward. Both Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and the recently re-elected governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, have offered the Islamists political dialogue.
Although a consensus has developed around the need for a political solution, Governor Shettima believes that successful negotiations can only occur if the government is in a position of power.
"Boko Haram is a political problem and a political problem needs a political solution," Shettima told Deutsche Welle. "If we rely only on the military option, we can only engage in an endless war which will not have any results at the end of the day. We can negotiate with them from a position of strength. We cannot negotiate from a position of weakness."
Governor Shettima believes the government must negotiate from a position of strength
A newly deployed joint contingent of police and military forces is supposed to create this position of strength. As hundreds of re-enforcements poured into Maiduguri, the chief of police declared that Boko Haram's days were numbered.
According to Boko Haram, negotiations can take place only after Islamic Sharia law has been implemented throughout northern Nigeria and Governor Shettima has stepped down.
Meanwhile, representatives of the group say that its fighters are being trained in Somalia by the al-Shabab militant group, which reputedly has close ties to al Qaeda. Many observers of the Islamist scene in Nigeria believe such a scenario is at least plausible. In recent years, Boko Haram's influence has spread beyond its traditional core as other disaffected people in northern Nigeria cultivate ties with the Islamic extremist group.
"The Boko Haram phenomenon today is the greatest threat to Nigeria - the greatest threat," Dalung said."And the Boko Haram phenomenon is so sophisticated that even the Nigerian state has not appreciated the level at which it has developed."
Author: Thomas Mösch / sk, Rob Mudge (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Mudge