KANO, Nigeria – Boko Haram has massacred scores of children, gloated about the kidnap and enslavement of more than 200 teenage girls and killed thousands more in a brutal five-year uprising to create a strict Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
But the Islamist rebels’ latest video aimed at showing an unidentified community happy to be under their control is a departure for a group whose trademark has been brutal hit-and-run attacks against defenseless civilians.
The extremists are believed to have taken more than two dozen towns and villages in the northeast, including Chibok, in Borno state, from where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April, provoking global outrage.
Residents in the affected areas have told Agence France-Presse that people are desperately seeking the chance to flee, sometimes under the cover of darkness, after watching their neighbors suffer brutal corporal punishments administered by the new rebel leadership.
There are, however, indications that Boko Haram is trying to persuade people that they will be safe under its so-called caliphate, provided everyone adheres to the group’s medieval interpretation of Islamic law.
Boko Haram “appears to be moving in the direction of providing services, especially security for the residents in the territories it controls,” John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the think-tank’s blog.
“They have stepped in as an alternative government following the withdrawal of government institutions from the areas now under their control,” added security analyst Abdullahi Bawa Wase.
‘Happy with Islamic caliphate’
Parts of the latest video obtained last weekend were almost certainly orchestrated for propaganda purposes.
Locals were shown cheering gunmen riding down a road on a tank, in some cases with onlooking children celebrating, arms raised in the air.
Several people were interviewed, including an unidentified older man, who said: “As a Muslim man, I am literally happy with Islamic caliphate. We have not faced any humiliation.”
There was no way to tell whether the words were spoken under duress.
The video clearly had a different objective from previous messages, with Boko Haram trying to present itself as a benevolent ruling authority and its leader Abubakar Shekau as a spiritual leader, said Ryan Cummings, of security analysts Red24.
“Much of Shekau’s previous videos have been filled with anti-Nigerian, anti-Western vitriol, which was seemingly delivered by a madman,” he said.
The latest message, however, portrayed him as “a composed theologian, providing spiritual guidance to a captured congregation”, he added, referring to scenes apparently showing a large crowd listening to Shekau’s preachings through a speaker.
“Staged or not, it may go a long way in nullifying government claims that Boko Haram is merely a bunch of criminal bandits with no agenda other than senseless violence,” he added.
Tijjani Kalifa, who fled the town of Mubi in Adamawa state after it was seized by Islamists earlier this month, said the militants had tried to restore commercial activity.
Soldiers backed by vigilantes and hunters reportedly retook Mubi this week but the situation remains fluid and officials say it is not yet safe to return.
Guerrilla force to rebel authority?
Boko Haram has attacked dozens of churches throughout the insurgency and Christianity is, not surprisingly, forbidden in areas captured by the group.
Kalifa and another resident who ran from Mubi, Ahmad Maishanu, said all the churches in the town have been razed.
The hands of 10 people accused of theft were also amputated in public, they said, following similar reports in other Boko Haram areas, including the execution of accused drug dealers and floggings for alleged adulterers.
No females were shown anywhere in the 44-minute video.
Analysts have previously suggested that Boko Haram’s change in tactics was inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group in Iraq and Syria.
The ISIS group advance and its declaration of a caliphate captured headlines worldwide, something that experts say Boko Haram wanted to mimic.
But analysts also note that Boko Haram, which is thought to be modestly funded and mostly made up of uneducated youths with almost no professional skills, is not well-suited to governing.
The group may in fact be committed to establishing and defending a hardline Islamist state but it is equally possible that it could resume recklessly attacking civilians, especially if pressured by the military, which has vowed to retake lost territory.
“We still don’t really know what this amorphous group wants and what the endgame is,” said Elizabeth Donnelly, of the London-based think-tank Chatham House. – With Ben Simon in Lagos, Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com