Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is battling a vicious challenge by a shadowy group of Islamist militants. Boko Haram, which just last week was designated by the U.S. a terrorist organization, has been waging a campaign to bring a harsh version of sharia, religious law, to Nigeria. And between the insurgency and that country's tough military response, thousands of Nigerians have died. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton traveled to the northeastern city where this insurgency began.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: We're in a high-speed convoy with the Nigerian military along the main street here in Maiduguri.


QUIST-ARCTON: The military clearly rule the streets here. They're flagging people to move out the way as they move at speed. And they have said that they do have some suspected Boko Haram militants and that they're going to show them to the journalists. Looking bewildered and overwhelmed by the media attention sits a man the Nigerian army presents as a former insurgent. The 22-year-old doesn't want to be identified. He's frightened. There may be reprisals against his family. He's on crutches, hit as he was captured by a bullet in his left lower leg, which is bandaged. Asked by journalists how he came to be a part of the anti-government insurgency, the young man says he was forced to join the extremists in northeastern Nigeria, but others are willing members.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) We had every profession: qualified doctors, engineers and security and weapons' experts. We had mechanics and welders, carpenters, drivers and butchers. Some of them are much older than us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram vows to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim in the north and largely Christian in the south. But this prisoner said religion did not appear to be a priority for his group's leaders.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) I did not see any act of religion there, no work of God. They have never preached Islam to us. The name of Allah is invoked only when we are running out of food supplies in the bush. Then our leaders assemble us together and declare that we are embarking on a mission for God and for Islam. We are just killing people, stealing from them and suffering in the bush. I was terrified. Every day was hell.

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram, in the local Hausa language, means Western education is forbidden. The group was formed almost 10 years ago with machete-wielding militants attacking government and security buildings. Now they wage war with armored cars, rocket-propelled grenades and increasingly they target civilians, Muslims and Christians - at schools, in a college dorm in the dead of night, and on public transportation. Victims often have their throats slit, echoing the way Muslims traditionally slaughter animals. Boko Haram militants battled Nigerian security forces and attacked a hospital and other targets last month in the northern city of Damaturu.


ABUBAKAR SHEKAU: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: In this video, militant leader Abubakar Shekau brags that he led the raid that killed 127 people. It was the first major attack in months on an urban target and an audacious show of strength, after seven months of emergency rule and a military crackdown. The White House has placed a $7 million ransom on Shekau.


QUIST-ARCTON: Yet Nigeria's army claims it is driving the militants out of the northern cities and chasing them into the bush. Colonel Ibrahim Yusuf, the acting brigade commander, says it's wrong to think that the insurgents are able to strike at will.

COLONEL IBRAHIM YUSUF: Strike at will. I don't think we are being taken by surprise. Attacking civilians shows their weakness. They are frustrated and they are only venting their anger on civilians. It means they have lost, they have lost the support of the civilians.

QUIST-ARCTON: Addressing a recent media briefing with the head of the U.S. Africa Command, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in its military crackdown Nigeria must respect human rights.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It's not all about security. They do have to take into account the impact of their operations on civilian populations as they go after Boko Haram.

QUIST-ARCTON: In Maiduguri, the prisoner told journalists that foreign fighters from three neighboring countries were among the insurgents in the Islamist rebellion, fueling fears of the violence spreading beyond Nigeria.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (through translator) We do have members of the group from Chad, Cameroon and Niger who actively participate in most of our attacks.

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram boasts of links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, a destabilizing presence in Nigeria, a nation already prone to deadly explosions of tribal and sectarian divisions.

MONTAGNE: And that's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who joins us now from her base in Dakar, Senegal. And Ofeibea, we've heard that there was a vigorous debate inside the U.S. government over whether to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist group. I mean this puts more resources towards helping the Nigerian government battle the terrorists, but what is the downside?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think the main concern is that the links between Boko Haram, possibly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, possibly al-Shabab in Somalia - are these groups acting together? And if the U.S. has put Boko Haram and the splinter group and (unintelligible) on this list of terrorist organizations, will it mean more recruitment of young men into its forces? Will they try possibly to attack American interests and raise the profile for fundraising? It's a big unknown, and I think that's part of the trouble. But there's great concern.

MONTAGNE: As we heard you just now, you described what is essentially a PR campaign on the part of the government there in Nigeria. What though is the public mood about Boko Haram at this point?

QUIST-ARCTON: You have people who say at least these insurgents, these fighters are no longer mainly targeting the urban areas. I mean they were running wild all over the place. They do seem to have been pushed back into rural areas, but this means that the people in the countryside are being hit at will. So Nigerians want an end to this. They say the government has got to deal with this problem once and for all. Who are these shadowy Boko Haram fighters? What is their real ideology and focus? And is it not perhaps better to sit down and talk, dialogue, negotiate for an end to this insurgency?

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Thank you very much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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