Nigeria’s “Taliban,” named for its heroes in a far-off land, could provide willing recruits for attacks on American targets, one of the group’s leaders boasted in a rare interview that had the trappings of a spy novel.
With equal parts bluster and chilling resolve, the slight 30-year-old explained why the militant Islamic group that set up its own “Afghanistan” base in northern Nigeria wants to shift its focus from domestic targets.
“The U.S. is the major target because it’s the major aggressor against Muslims throughout the world,” said the young man, who wore a bottle-green caftan and gave his name only as Musa. “America is the main aggressor, and I believe all these attacks against America are divine worship.”
He gazed straight ahead as he spoke, never meeting the eyes of his interviewer.
“They are fighting Islam and we will also fight them, if we get the chance,” he said.
The Nigerian Taliban has been regarded as a bit player in the jostling field of Islamic extremism, unlikely to pose a threat to Europe and the Americas. This West African nation, however, came under renewed scrutiny after a young Nigerian man was arrested on suspicion of attempting to detonate explosives concealed in his underpants on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has no relationship with the Nigerian Taliban, but his arrest initially raised fear of Al Qaeda activity in Africa’s most populous country.
Musa said the Nigerian Taliban identified with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but that it received ideological support from them, not financial. (Family members say the group raised substantial funds by having followers sell all their “sinful” possessions: furniture, vehicles, even the tools of their trades.)
“The only assistance we have received is ideological. The ideology is coming from there,” said Musa, who was not specific on whether it was direct or indirect support.
“As far as we are concerned, the best assistance we can get is ideology.”
Richard Moncrieff, West Africa analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, said that though the Nigerian Taliban had a domestic goal when it formed, it could be drawn into global Islamist militancy.
The group “came from failings of the Nigerian state,” Moncrieff said.
“That’s its origin. It was not originally about international jihad. But the possibility of it, or bits of it, being turned toward international jihad is real,” he said.
He also said there was a strong risk the Taliban and its grievances could be picked up by groups wanting to make the conflict international and indoctrinate the rebels in the belief that Nigeria’s problems were part of a global clash between Christians and Muslims.
“There’s a potential for that in northern Nigeria. I think there’s a risk of it going that way.”
The group mounted major attacks in four northern Nigerian states in July but was soon crushed by security forces. When the fighting stopped, 700 people were believed to have been killed, including the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Human rights groups say his killing appeared to be an execution by security forces, who said he was shot while escaping.
After that defeat, the group split into cells and went underground, adopting an Al Qaeda-style structure that some fear will increase the likelihood of attacks.
A pool of recruits
The unemployment rate in northern Nigeria is high, and even educated people are often forced into menial work as traders, creating a vast pool of angry, alienated potential recruits, said analyst Haruna Wakili, a professor at Bayero University in Kano who has studied the organization.
“They’re underground, they’re everywhere, in every northern state. And they’re armed,” he said.
Musa, the young leader, said the group’s setback was a “blessing” because its new underground operations had given it invisibility and freedom. “Before, we were living in a group in the community where the government was watching us and felt we were a threat. Now that we’ve dispersed we can conduct our activities without any monitoring or any surveillance.”
Musa was highly conscious of security when meeting a foreign journalist in March at a park in a northern city.
The reporter arrived with a go-between, waiting while the Taliban leaders, still out of sight, watched to make sure no one was following. The reporter was led for 10 minutes through the park, at one point passing a group of men. Three men began following. Shortly after, the interview took place on a park bench.
Musa looked askance when The Times began posing questions about the group’s defeat last summer and its foreign links.
“I’m getting to that,” he said, with a tone of disapproval.
A woman’s story
The Nigerian Taliban is so secretive that there was little information about it even before the group went underground. But one woman tells the story of how her husband, “an ordinary man,” was drawn into the rebellion.
Hafsat Hassan said that 2 1/2 years ago, her husband, Al Amin Mohammad, grew an unkempt beard, banned his family from watching television or listening to radio and declared furniture a sin, selling every piece of it.
Then he pulled the children out of school. He took to wearing a turban, forbade his wife to go out, and finally gave up his work as a street trader.
“He would not allow me to go out,” she said. “He said it was against Islamic values.”
He spoke enthusiastically about Bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban for defending Islam against U.S. aggression. His face lighted up when he talked about the coming holy struggle to spread Islam across this religiously divided country. And he brought six guns home.
The last time Hassan saw her 38-year-old husband was about midnight on a Friday in July as he hurried out the door of their Maiduguri house with a sack of homemade bombs and a bag of rifles.
Weeping, she begged him not to leave her and the six children. He ignored her protests. (He always did.)
“He said, ‘If we are victorious, we will come back, but if we are killed, that’s it. Let’s forgive each other and bid farewell.’ ”
Reacting to attacks
Musa spoke in a low, soft voice, saying the group had been misunderstood and had never sought violence. It was just reacting to attacks on Islam and extrajudicial killings of Muslims by Nigerian security forces.
“Islam is the most peaceful religion in the world, despite all that’s happening,” he said.
Referring to his group’s defeats last year, he said, “We are not saddened by what happened. Each death has been decreed by God, and you cannot add an extra moment to what has been decreed by God.”