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Nigeria: Boko Haram Radical Muslim Sect Grows More Dangerous

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NIGERIA RADICAL MUSLIM SECT GROWS MORE DANGEROUS
(PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The imam's insistent, lecturing voice comes right to the point over the scratchy audio recording: Holy war is the only way to bring change for Muslims in Nigeria.

Abubakar Shekau urges followers of his feared Boko Haram sect to carry out more assassinations and bombings. The group's violent campaign already has left more than 240 people dead this year. On Friday, a suicide bomber hit a military base while explosives detonated around Maiduguri – attacks that bore the hallmarks of Boko Haram.

"Whomever we kill, we kill because Allah says we should kill and we kill for a reason," Shekau says in a recording of a sermon obtained by The Associated Press.

Boko Haram, which in August bombed the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria, is the gravest security threat to Africa's most populous nation and is gaining prominence despite efforts by the military and police to stamp it out. A security agency crackdown, which human rights activists say has left innocent civilians dead, could be winning the insurgency even more supporters.

Complicating efforts to negotiate peace, the group apparently has split into three factions, the AP has learned. One remains moderate and welcomes an end to the violence, another wants a peace agreement with rewards similar to those offered to a different militant group in 2009. The third faction refuses to negotiate and wants to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, an oil-rich nation of more than 160 million which has a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north.

The split in Boko Haram appears to be so serious that one representative of its moderate faction was killed after negotiating with former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo in September.

Nigerian officials and diplomats fear the sect will launch bolder assaults on foreign interests and the country's weak central government.

Security agencies thought they had destroyed the group following a July 2009 riot and military crackdown that left 700 people dead and leader Mohammed Yusuf killed in police custody in Maiduguri, Boko Haram's spiritual home.

But the group re-emerged about a year ago, beginning a campaign of assassinations by motorcycle-riding gunmen carrying Kalashnikov rifles hidden under their traditional robes. Today, motorcycles are banned from the streets, but attacks continue in and around the city of about 3 million. An AP count of casualties this year alone shows Boko Haram killed at least 247 people.

A mosque destroyed in the 2009 violence still sits in ruins. Yusuf's family still lives at the site, in bungalows built to house railway workers at the nearby Maiduguri station.

It was there that the former president had come unannounced on Sept. 15 to speak with members of Yusuf's family about the continuing spree of killings carried out by the sect. Assassins from the group routinely kill government officials, police officers, soldiers in the region and clerics who speak out against the group.

After the talk, Yusuf's in-law Babakura Fugu said the family offered a list of demands and was upbeat about the chances for peace. Within 48 hours, Fugu was dead, killed by a Kalashnikov-carrying gunman on a sunny afternoon. A claim of responsibility for the killing by one spokesman for Boko Haram would be angrily denied by another.

"This has created division lines among them which has further kept members of the sect apart," said Lt. Col. Hassan Ifijeh Mohammed, a military spokesman in the area.

The most radical and "ideologically enhanced" faction is in contact with al-Qaida's North Africa branch and likely Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity per embassy orders.

It appears Shekau, once Yusuf's second-in-commnand, now leads that faction, and exercises some control over the other ones. Authorities thought they'd killed Shekau in 2009 – until he began issuing audio and video messages.

Shekau and other top Boko Haram commanders likely stay outside Nigeria, in neighboring Cameroon, Chad or Niger.

The group's stepped-up violence suggests outsiders like al-Shabab and al-Qaida's north Africa branch are helping the group, the diplomat said. The suicide car-bombing of the U.N.'s Nigeria headquarters in the distant capital, Abuja, on Aug. 26 killed 24 people and wounded 116.

"Before, it was just armed thugs with AK-47s on motorcycles," the diplomat said. "Now, (they are) coming up with these much more elaborate and much more devastating and complex car bombs."

In Maiduguri, security has been increased. Soldiers peer from behind machine guns in sandbagged bunkers built along major roads. Members of the country's secret police, sweating in ill-fitting dark suits under the desert sun, guard government buildings.

For Khalifa Dikwa, a professor at the University of Maiduguri, the endemically poor region is ripe for recruitment by the insurgency.

While the well-connected and powerful who are accused of wrongdoing can get good lawyers and soon be free, "somebody who was incarcerated for stealing just a chicken will be behind bars for six years without trial," Dikwa said. "Again, it boils down to injustice, alienation, arm-twisting of the law, corrupting the entire system."

Unemployment may run as high as 70 percent and opportunities remain few for youths who lack access to formal education. Boko Haram offers inclusion and a livelihood in a nation where corrupt politicians collude with religious leaders, Dikwa said.

"Anybody who feels cheated is Boko Haram," he said.

The name Boko Haram, which locals attached to the group years ago, means "Western education is sacrilege" in Hausa. It doesn't just imply formal learning, but rather Western ideals like Nigeria's U.S.-styled democracy that followers believe have destroyed the country, the professor said.

Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima said in an interview that Boko Haram wants to gain notoriety in the global terror network.

Shettima believes direct development projects are the way to win his state support from locals and make them turn away from the sect. Rows of gleaming yellow tricycle taxis sit outside his office, a project he said will provide employment for those without jobs.

A series of bank robberies that began this summer appears to provide Boko Haram most of its funding for its attacks, the diplomat and Nigerian officials say. The government is sending more officers, soldiers and shiny new pickup trucks to the region, but Boko Haram's attacks continue.

The security officials complain that they cannot distinguish friend from foe in the markets of Maiduguri and neighborhoods where burned-out buildings from bombings and the 2009 crackdown still stand. Some selling cheap goods serve as lookouts for the sect, officials say.

Frustrated and enraged soldiers have beaten, whipped and shot innocent bystanders after attacks on the military, local residents say. Some people detained by the police have disappeared while in their custody.

This makes many locals resentful of authority. The diplomat acknowledged that the backlash by authorities has "gotten out of hand" at times.

The fear in Maiduguri – even at the manicured governor's compound – is palpable. As a reporter waited to interview the governor, an electrical transformer exploded near the tricycle taxis. Soldiers on guard duty jumped, rifles at ready as sparks fell to the ground.

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Jon Gambrell, AP's chief correspondent in Lagos, recently traveled to Maiduguri for this story. He can be reached at . http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP

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