Islamist sect in Nigeria grows more deadly

The radical Islamist fighters gather around piles of weapons and ammunition they've stolen and shout praises to God as they shoot into the expanse of the African desert.

Those depicted in this video don't come from long-lawless Somalia, nor from al-Qaida North Africa branch. These extremists are from Boko Haram, the Islamist group 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.

Now, Boko Haram seems to be growing more violent with a record number of people killed this year and slowly internationalizing its stance, a possible danger for the rest of West Africa. More than 770 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks so far this year, according to an Associated Press count, making 2012 the worst year of violence attributed to the group.

"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 U.S. 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.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, grew out of a religious movement founded by Mohammed Yusuf. The name - a moniker that stuck after Yusuf constantly used it as a refrain during his preaching - means more than just rejecting Western education, science and other Western beliefs. 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 ever richer, poverty still crushes most of those living in the north and its young have few economic or educational opportunities. About 75 percent of the people in Nigeria's northeast - the home of Boko Haram - live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

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 one that killed at least 185 people in Kano in January. Soldiers have been deployed in the streets across northeast 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. Officials in Nigeria's presidency have given conflicting information about reaching out to the group. In August, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati told journalists that the government had opened "back channel" negotiations with Boko Haram. On Nov. 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 dialoging 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.

The sect's apparent leader, Abubakar Shekau, appears to be even more hardline than Yusuf. Boko Haram has loose connections with al-Qaida in the Islamic 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.

Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the U.S. military's Africa Command, said 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-Qaida in the Islamic 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 organization has an ability to further expand their efforts."

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

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 Islamist insurgencies around the world.

"Did jihad stop? No, a thousand no's," Shekau said, according to a translation by the SITE 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 Islamists warned that they intend 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.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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