The United States army provided counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops battling a rise in attacks by Islamist militants, the Nigerian military has revealed.
More than 100 people have been killed in recent days by the radical Muslim sect, Boko Haram, dubbed the “Nigerian Taliban”, in the country’s northeast. One rights activist described it as “a state of armed Islamist insurgency” likely to spread.
Nigeria has sought to crush the group with military force, but faces criticism from human rights activists for alleged extrajudicial killings.
The military said some battalions had received training in the US. “The army is in the process of setting up a division that is effectively looking at warfare tactics,” a spokesperson said. “Various battalions were in the US earlier this year for training to that end.”
It is thought that these include specialist units such as those involved in bomb disposal.
US officials confirmed that the country had a longstanding deal with Nigeria, with soldiers travelling to America for training. It could not comment on whether the exercise was aimed at combating Boko Haram. The US embassy in Abuja said: “We have had a mil-mil [military-military] relationship with the Nigerians for decades, principally supporting their peacekeeping efforts in Africa [Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur] and around the globe. In recent years, and at their request, we have worked with them on their nascent counter-force. We do not know if any of these elements have been deployed in the north.”
Boko Haram has taken over parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta, the country’s main security problem. Loosely modelled on the Taliban in Afghanistan, it became active in 2003 and focuses mainly on the impoverished northern states.
In 2009 Boko Haram staged attacks in the northeastern city of Bauchi and clashed with security forces in Maiduguri. Sect leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured and later shot dead in police detention. But its fighters regrouped and last year they raided a jail in Maiduguri, freeing hundreds of followers.
In December 2010 the sect said it was behind the bombings in central Nigeria and the attacks on churches in the northeast that led to the deaths of at least 86 people.
At least 361 people have been killed this year, according to the Associated Press. In June a car bomb tore through a car park outside police headquarters in the capital, Abuja, killing at least two, demonstrating that Boko Haram could attack the heart of Nigerian society. In August Nigeria’s first suicide bomber struck the United Nations building in Abuja, killing 23.
Nigerian leaders have tried to downplay the threat. But the mood in Maiduguri remains tense. Ali Sambo, co-ordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency, said: “It’s a festive period and normally people would be out amusing themselves, but everyone is fearful. There are roadblocks and a curfew.” —