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The Insurgents Next Door

The Gathering Storm

They were the golden boys of Maiduguri. Good kids from good families. University students with hopes of changing the world. And then they were gone. One by one or with their friends, they dropped out of school, abandoned their studies in economics, science, engineering, or tore up their diplomas. They left behind their homes and families to follow a young man named Muhammad Ali and to preach his vision of true Islam from village to village.

“Why would they do that? Throw away the opportunities that come with college to live like paupers and preach? Why?” Hamsatu heard her friends and neighbors — parents of those boys — ask each other and her as they gossiped in the marketplace, mingled at ceremonial occasions, or visited each other’s homes to share their frustrations and their fears.

They left behind their homes and families to follow a young man named Muhammad Ali and to preach his vision of true Islam from village to village.

“Why would they turn their backs on everything dear to them — family, home, education?”

The answer, Hamsatu realized, was within the question itself.

Institutionalized corruption, spread by patrimonial politics in their society, was an open secret in Borno. People who had bribed their way to high-level positions in all sectors too often awarded jobs to their relatives and cronies. In the system as it was, a good-for-nothing nephew was likely to be given preference over a top-of-the-class college grad.

Muhammad Ali tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment among his classmates at the University of Maiduguri, arguing that in a society that was true to the Quran, inequities like that would not only disappear, they wouldn’t happen in the first place. Offering a kind of utopian vision, he lured scores of disaffected youth to join him in addressing injustice by living and preaching the Quran — or his interpretation of it — to the poorest of the poor in and near northern Nigeria.

Hamsatu was well aware that — but for the grace of Allah — she, too, could easily have been one of those mothers asking “Why?” Back when the second oldest of her six sons was in high school, his circle of friends included Muhammad Ali. On weekends that group of teenagers often hung out at the compound in Konduga. Riding horses. Talking. Joking. Requesting seconds of Hamsatu’s hibiscus soup. And praying. She was impressed, then, with the quiet piety of Muhammad Ali. He told her that his father had died when he was little, so he was raised by his grandmother in Saudi Arabia, who brought him back to Maiduguri for his high school years. Hamsatu would overhear him, fluent in Arabic, translating the Quran for her son and his buddies. And when it came time for their daily prayers, they looked to him to lead.

After high school, Muhammad Ali and most of that group went on to the university. But not Hamsatu’s son. He enrolled in the local polytechnic, found new friends there, and didn’t have much contact with his former classmates.

News continued to arrive from the north about Muhammad Ali and the commune he founded dedicated to practicing strict Islamic Shariah law. In conversations with each other, parents in Maiduguri lamented:

“Those boys have no means of income now — and if they keep this up, they never will!”

“I know. My son says he gets money for food by doing all kinds of menial jobs!”

“Our son convinced our daughter to quit school, too, and marry one of his cohorts!”

“Convinced? More like brainwashed.”

And so it went. Hamsatu couldn’t help but feel relieved her son was still at home, continuing his classes at the polytechnic. But she also felt the worry of the mothers of Maiduguri. In that close-knit Kanuri community, the families next door were more than just neighbors.

“Those boys are my sons, too,” Hamsatu would say.

Worry turned to grief when word arrived from the north that there had been a clash over fishing rights at a community pond. What should have been a minor matter between authorities and the boys — now more than 70 strong — had somehow escalated; police there arrested several of the group’s members. The others later mobilized to fight this perceived injustice by launching an attack on the police station to free their “brothers.” In the clash that ensued, policemen were killed and several members of the group — including Muhammad Ali — also lost their lives. But the idea behind the commune still lived in the survivors, and the decimated group carried on, armed now with a cache of weapons — booty from their police-station battle.

Enter Muhammed Yusuf, a charismatic young cleric who emerged to take control. Under his leadership, they started promoting a version of Islam that makes it haram — the Arabic word for “forbidden” — for Muslims to take part in activities associated with Western society.

Muhammed Yusuf gave the group an official name: Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād  or Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad. The society called them “Yusufiyas.” They called each other “Brother.”

But the world would come to know them as “Boko Haram.”

The Roots of Jihad

Muhammed Yusuf brought Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād back to Maiduguri, where he set up the group’s headquarters, complete with a mosque and Islamic school, not far from the street where Hamsatu lived. At the same time, he also instituted a kind of recruitment program by inviting Islamic teachers all over Borno State to send him their five best students for a period of Quranic study. Every time they recited the entire Quran by heart, they’d be rewarded with 5,000 naira, he said — an attractive sum, especially for those from the most poverty-stricken areas.

In addition to a small livelihood, membership in Boko Haram offered discontented young men a sense of shared purpose, religious instruction in their own language, a strong father figure, and even, in some instances, wives. Like others in the community, a number of girls had come under Muhammed Yusuf’s spell, and willingly exchanged their school uniforms for burkas, husbands, and a new — better, they were told — way of life.

Photo of Muhammed Yusuf, taken from a recording of him preaching (youtube.com)

“Where does he get all his money?” parents in Maiduguri wondered. No one knew. And it made a lot of people uneasy, including Hamsatu.

In her bedroom in the apartment she now rented in Maiduguri, Hamsatu tossed, turned, and listened in the dark for her son, Muhammad, to come home. It was well past 10:00. And Mamman — as she and everyone called him — should have been home more than an hour ago. He had a part-time job a few evenings each week at a local shop, in addition to his engineering classes at the university. And he was always home by 9:00. Always. Or if he was going to be late, he’d be sure to let her know.

Not tonight. And so, sleep would have to wait until she heard the front door creak open. Instead of dreams, her head was filled with a mother’s worries. When she heard the click of the lock, she leapt up to meet him, demanding with a maternal mix of relief and irritation, “Where have you been!”

Mamman met her look with an expression that bordered on the beatific.

“Ah, Mama, after work I went to hear Muhammed Yusuf speak at the grounds near the shop. The things he said! He read from the Quran and explained it in a way I’d never heard before! He inspired everyone there. I wish you could have heard him!”

Hamsatu felt her chest tighten. Fact was, she had heard Muhammed Yusuf speak.

Back when the whole family lived in Konduga — before her recent and final divorce from the father of her eight children — she had stood at the gate of the family compound and watched Muhammed Yusuf arrive at the village for an evening talk in the open air in front of the central mosque directly across from her home. An advance group had roared in earlier — mostly on motorcycles — to set up the amplifiers and microphone and the table and chair where the young cleric would hold forth.

The mood was festive as the villagers awaited his arrival. The Kanuri were known for their love of celebration. And the coming of this Islamic preacher they’d heard so much about was as good a reason as any.

After late evening prayer, a local teenager, a fervent follower of Muhammed Yusuf, was given the mic to deliver the initial sermon and set the tone. With wild-eyed exuberance, he harangued against any and all forms of education that didn’t begin and end with the Quran. He asserted that the advances of modern medicine — things like immunizations and diagnostic tools —were the work of the devil. Anyone who wasn’t a Muslim, he suggested, was an infidel.

Whipping up the crowd to welcome his leader, the young man interpreted the Quran in ways that were antithetical to the book Hamsatu had been raised with and loved. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

The crowd roared as the young orator put down the mic and a motorcade of several vehicles led Muhammed Yusuf’s Lexus SUV to the spot that had been set up for him. Getting out, he waved regally to the cheering crowd.

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”

Nodding his approval to the young man who had just spoken, Muhammed Yusuf sat down at the table, a copy of the Quran at his fingertips, its pages ruffling in the warm breeze of a desert night. As his voice crackled through the amplifiers, the crowd grew quiet. More than quiet — mesmerized by the passion of his delivery, the authority in his voice, the cadence of his words.

When he railed against government corruption, Hamsatu found herself agreeing. But she took issue with the fact that he placed the blame for that solely on Western education.

Remembering the Prophet’s words — “Seek knowledge even if it is as far as China” — and still reeling at the disturbing messages that peppered the speech of Muhammed Yusuf’s ardent young follower, Hamsatu wondered at the motives behind such preaching.

Now Mamman seemed at risk of coming under the sway of that group, whose twisted interpretation of the Quran collided with what she knew to be true.

“What you heard tonight is not Islam,” she told Mamman, with an urgency motivated by a prescient fear.

“But . . .”

“Listen to me. You are never to go to those talks of his again. Muhammed Yusuf’s Islam is not ours. Real scholars like your grandfather and great-grandfather would be appalled to hear what he is saying.”

Mamman looked down. Said nothing.

“Look at me,” she continued, her voice rising.

Their eyes locked.

“I mean it. Mamman. Stay away from that group. Do you understand?”

“OK, Mama, OK,” he finally murmured. “I hear you.”

And because she knew the kind of man she had raised her boy to be, she was able to sleep well that night. But throughout Maiduguri in the days ahead, unrest connected to Muhammed Yusuf and his faithful followers continued to spread.

Men who were running for political office – all of them products of Western education – viewed the group’s growing numbers as a valuable voting bloc. And to get the support of Boko Haram members, they promised to fully implement Shariah law once they were elected. When those new government officials reneged, the seeds of anti-establishment rage and distrust, sown years before in a faraway battle over fishing rights, grew.

It erupted in Maiduguri when the group convened for the funeral of the baby brother of one of its members. Riding the motorcycles everyone had come to associate with Boko Haram, they were blocked on their way to the cemetery by policemen for not abiding by a new law that required them to wear helmets.

The already-resentful riders, determined to continue their procession, looked for ways around the makeshift blockade, saying to those officials, in effect, “You can’t stop us.” And with a barrage of bullets from their semi-automatics, local law enforcement answered, “Oh, yeah?”

Muhammed Yusuf soon declared a retaliatory jihad on the government. And Boko Haram began burning police stations and killing officers and security personnel — who, in turn, fought back and killed as many members of the group as they could. After Muhammed Yusuf was caught by the military and executed by the police, Boko Haram went underground. But it returned with a vengeance a year later, led by a man named Shekau, Yusuf’s second in command, who directed another series of assassinations of law enforcement officials — which, in turn, led to a declared state of emergency with crackdowns and city-wide curfews.

And no one was safe from suspicion. Not even Hamsatu. Not even her sons.

Neighborhoods in Maidurguri where Boko Haram members were believed to reside were set afire and destroyed — along with the homes and lives of people who’d never even met Muhammed Yusuf or Shekau. Anyone suspected of being in league with the group was rounded up, tortured for information, killed, or never seen again. Even the wives and children of Shekau and other key commanders were hauled off into custody. Boko Haram responded with more violence — this time, burning schools and killing or abducting family members of their enemies. Neighborhood vigilantes, in self-protection mode, sprung up. Violence and retribution ruled, settling over the city like the gritty dust of a Saharan sandstorm. And no one was safe from suspicion. Not even Hamsatu. Not even her sons.

Section title photo: Dark storm clouds (Pixabay)



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