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Boko Haram killings increase in West Africa

Jon Gambrell

More than 770 people have been killed in a spate of Boko Haram attacks in Western Africa and seem to be growing more violent.

This year has seen more than 770 people killed in Boko Haram attacks, said an Associated Press count. (AFP)

The radical fighters gather around piles of weapons and ammunition and shout praises to God as they shoot into the expanse of the African desert. These extremists depicted in this video are from Boko Haram, a radical sect in Nigeria, that turned to wide-scale violence in 2009 over local grievances and largely focused their assaults in Maiduguri – the city where the sect started.

As Boko Haram seems to be growing more violent with a record number of people killed this year, and slowly internationalising its stance, the group has become a possible danger for the rest of West Africa.

"Weak border security as well as corruption - and even membership of immigration officials in Boko Haram - could facilitate the travel of militants between northern Mali and Nigeria," warned analyst Jacob Zenn in an October publication by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point. "The insurgency is likely to become more diverse and complex over time, which will limit the efficacy of negotiations."

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's government has not found an effective response to Boko Haram, analysts say.

Making matters worse, government soldiers in the last two months responded to Boko Haram attacks by opening fire in public places killing dozens of civilians in two incidents.

The shootings further alienated Nigeria's Muslim population and have likely driven some toward supporting the sect, local residents say.

'Western education is sacrilege'
Boko Haram, which translates to "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, stemmed from a religious movement founded by Mohammed Yusuf.

Adherents also dismiss Western-style democracy, which Nigeria embraced in 1999 after decades of military rule.

While the nation's political and business elite have grown richer, poverty still crushes most of those living in the north and its young have few economic or educational opportunities.

About 75% of the people in Nigeria's north-east (the home of Boko Haram) live in absolute poverty, on less than $1 a day, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

Previous attacks
In 2009, rioting by Boko Haram set off a military crackdown that left 700 people dead in Maiduguri. Army tanks destroyed the sect's Maiduguri mosque and Yusuf was killed in police custody.

The group went underground, but reemerged about a year later, carrying out guerrilla-style shootings from the back of motorbikes and setting off small bombs.

Over time Boko Haram has grown far more sophisticated, bombing the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, and launching massive, military-style assaults like the one that killed at least 185 people in Kano in January.

Soldiers have been deployed in the streets across north-east Nigeria but Boko Haram has repeatedly used suicide car bombers to attack churches and security posts.

The sect has said it will stop its attacks only if the government strictly implements Shariah law and frees its imprisoned members.

Government's response
Officials in Nigeria's presidency have given conflicting information about reaching out to the group. In August, presidential spokesperson Reuben Abati told journalists that the government had opened "back channel" negotiations with Boko Haram.

On November 1, after a previously unknown, self-proclaimed Boko Haram leader said the group would be willing to hold talks in Saudi Arabia, Abati again told journalists that indirect talks had begun.

However, Jonathan, in a November interview with journalists broadcast on state-run television and radio, denied any such talks had taken place.

"Presently government is not dialoguing with any group; there is no dialogue between the Boko Haram and government," Jonathan said. "Boko Haram is still operating under cover ... they wear [a] mask, there's no face, so you don't have anybody to discuss with."

Abati did not respond to requests to clarify his earlier remarks.

Boko Haram 'could become a greater worldwide threat'
The sect's apparent leader, Abubakar Shekau, appears to be even more hardline than Yusuf. Boko Haram has loose connections with al-Qaeda in Maghreb and Somalia's al-Shabab, according to Western military officials and diplomats.

In April witnesses said they saw English-speaking militants they believed came from Nigeria in Northern Mali, which fell into the hands of Islamists in the wake of a March coup in Mali's capital.

US army general and commander of the US military's Africa command, Carter Ham said on Monday that while Boko Haram appears focused on local issues it could become a greater worldwide threat if left unchecked. Ham said the group has already received training, money and weaponry from al-Qaeda in Maghreb as part of "a relationship that goes both ways".

"It is clear to me that Boko Haram's leadership aspires to broader activities across the region – certainly to Europe," Ham said at George Washington University. "As their name implies, anything that is Western is a legitimate target in their eyes. I think it's in our national interest to help the Nigerians address this problem internally before it gets worse and the organisation has an ability to further expand their efforts."

Ham ruled out any US military involvement and said a Nigerian military crackdown could only be used as "part of a broader strategy".

Killings continue
Meanwhile, the killings and threats continue. In a video posted last week to an online jihadist forum Shekau said killing police "is permissible" and called democracy "a disbelieving system", while also applauding other radical insurgencies around the world.

"Did jihad stop? No, a thousand no's," Shekau said, according to a translation by the Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group. "Jihad doesn't stop until Allah wills it to be stopped, and with the glory of Allah the almighty, oh disbelievers, oh apostates, oh hypocrites, die from your frustration."

The Nigerian extremists warned that they intended to maintain their violent campaign, ending their message with another video showing fighters standing beside Kalashnikov assault rifles and bullets.

A fighter fired a heavy machine gun into the distance, while another used a rifle with a scope. A group of fighters also walked through the scrub of the desert, with one carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher over his shoulder. - Sapa

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