Boko Haram to stage 'deadlier comeback'

Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram intend staging a bold comeback.

Boko Haram gunmen killed 16 people when they fired on worshippers at a church in Nigeria's central Kogi state. Picture: Supplied

BAGA - After a crackdown pushed them out of Nigeria's northern cities, Islamist militant group Boko Haram have regrouped, rearmed and are staging a bold comeback that has already allowed them to seize control over parts of the northeast.

Using porous borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon in the desolate scrubland around Lake Chad, they are smuggling bigger weapons, staging cross-border raids, killing and kidnapping in an escalation of violence that could further draw Nigeria's neighbours into its counter-insurgency fight, security officials say.

The Islamists now control at least 10 of the 27 local council areas in Borno state, Nigeria's most remote north-eastern region on the edge of the Sahara and a relic of one of Africa's oldest medieval Islamic empires, security sources there say.

One says the real figure could be closer to 20, as local councillors fearing assassination have fled, leaving a power vacuum filled by bearded radicals with automatic rifles.

Boko Haram's struggle for an Islamic state has killed thousands since 2009 and is the main threat to Africa's top oil producer, although its fighters have so far not struck anywhere near the southern oil fields.

When Borno's governor Kassim Shettima briefed visiting senators and military advisers in a confidential security meeting on 7 May, he said something that stunned them: Boko Haram were on the verge of seizing control of his state.

"What the governor said was frightening. He informed us there is a possibility that this state will be taken over by Boko Haram ... that they have the ability to do whatever they wanted here," senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi, a delegate and deputy majority leader for the ruling party, said after the meeting.

"I had thought Boko Haram had been subdued to some extent."

MOVEMENT IN FLUX

A wave of Islamic fervour took hold of northern Nigeria during an economic crisis in the early 1980s, triggering riots in the north's main city of Kano and later prompting many states to introduce Sharia law from 1999.

In 2002, a cleric called Mohammed Yusuf founded a radical Islamist movement in Borno, later nicknamed 'Boko Haram' or 'Western education is sinful' in the northern Hausa language because of its opposition to Western cultural influences.

A military crackdown during an uprising in 2009 led to the deaths of 800 people, including Yusuf, who died in police custody.

Far from being silenced, they struck back, first shooting or throwing bombs at police off the back of motorcycles, then graduating to increasingly sophisticated bomb-making technology.

By late last year it seemed the militants had been chased out of city centres and were losing the ability to carry out large-scale attacks, but Boko Haram have repeatedly proved masters of recovering from apparent defeat.

A coordinated strike by some 200 Boko Haram fighters on an army barracks, police station and prison in the town of Bama last week that left 55 people dead and freed more than 100 prisoners was the latest evidence that they have recovered their strength.

Initially funded by northern politicians who later distanced themselves from the militants, Boko Haram have forged growing links with Saharan Islamists such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, giving them new access to funding and training.