For months, fear of Boko Haram has gripped Nigeria’s northeast. The goals of the Islamic militant group, which captured international attention through a relentless campaign of brutality, have long been about killing. But last summer, something changed. Its aspirations became as much about territory as terrorism. It no longer wants to just cripple a government. It wants to become one.
In August, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced the establishment of his “Islamic Caliphate,” quickly taking over every corner of Borno State in northeast Nigeria. But one town called Baga, populated by thousands of Nigerians along the western shores of Lake Chad, held out. Anchored by a multinational military base manned by troops from Niger to Chad, it was the last place in Borno under the national government’s control. Over the weekend, that changed.
Gunshots punctured the early morning quiet. “They came through the north, the west and from the southern part of the town because the eastern part is only water,” one resident told the BBC. “So, when we [went] toward the western part, we saw heavily armed Boko Haram men coming toward us.” At the sight of the incoming insurgents, the soldiers put up a scant fight before abandoning their base and leaving residents defenseless.
“There is definitely something wrong that makes our military abandon their posts each time there is an attack from Boko Haram,” local state senator Maina Maaji Lawan told the BBC, adding that residents’ frustration knew “no bounds.” Frustration, however, soon gave way to something substantially worse.
It’s not clear how many people were killed in Baga. Early reports on Thursday said hundreds. Others said it was many more. Musa Alhaji Bukar, a senior government official in Borno, said Boko Haram killed more than 2,000 people which, if true, would mean the group equaled its total kill count last year in one attack. More were said to have drowned in Lake Chad while attempting to swim to a nearby island. Some estimates said more than 20,000 people are now displaced as result of what one reporter called Boko Haram’s “most horrific act of terrorism yet.”
Baga, local government officials say, is simply no more. It’s “virtually non-existent,” Bukar told the BBC. One man who escaped with his family told Agence France-Presse he had to navigate through “many dead bodies on the ground” and that the “whole town was on fire.” Another man told Reuters he “escaped with my family in the car after seeing how Boko Haram was killing people … I saw bodies in the street. Children and women, some were crying for help.” He added: Bodies were “littered on the streets and surrounding bushes.”
“The indiscriminate killing went on and on and on,” Lawan told BBC.
It’s hard to find contemporary precedent for the delight Boko Haram takes in killing. Even the Islamic State, which has killed thousands and purposely targets minorities, doesn’t seem to be as wanton in its acts of carnage. It appears everyone — Muslim, Christian, Cameroonian, Nigerian — is a target for Boko Haram.
A video recently emerged, Genocide Watch reported, that shows gunmen shooting civilians as they lay face down in a dormitory. A local leader explains they are “infidels,” even though he admits they’re Muslim: “We have made sure the floor of this hall is turned red with blood, and this is how it is going to be in all future attacks and arrests of infidels. From now on, killing, slaughtering, destruction and bombings will be our religious duty anywhere we invade.”
Is there any stopping it? For the time being, it appears not. The administration of Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck and his military, beset by corruption and ill-equipped, have been unable to match both Boko Haram’s firepower, discipline and fundraising. And now, with Boko Haram’s campaign to control northeast Nigeria complete, analysts said its territorial ambitions have outgrown Nigeria’s porous borders.
Cameroon dispatched troops to its northern border to meet the assault, but its military has been taxed by ceaseless Boko Haram attacks, reported Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Dec. 28, fighters spilled across a dry river bed into Cameroon. “This may have been an attempt by Boko Haram to establish control over a significant portion of Cameroon’s far north region, where the group has long been active and recruited fighters,” the think tank said. Boko Haram seized one town and simultaneously attacked five more.
Residents fled — but where to? According to AFP, Boko Haram’s recent attack means the group controls all of Borno’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Meanwhile, hundreds who survived the swim out to that island in Lake Chad are said to be trapped. “They told me,” Abubakar Gamandi, a Baga native, told AFP, “that some of them are dying from lack of food, cold and malaria on the mosquito-infested island.”