A man walks past a train on the Abuja-Kaduna night railway line in Abuja, on July 21, 2016. The rail line has been under attack by bandits and Boko Haram. (AFP via Getty Images)
Jihadists and Bandits Working as One Force, Say Nigerian Officials
1,000-man gangs on motorbikes strike on the doorstep of the capital
By Douglas Burton
Officials in Nigeria acknowledged on April 13 that so-called bandits and the terrorists known as Boko Haram have formed a united front to attack trains and highways leading into the capital Abuja.
Though the union of the two criminal groups has been suspected for a year the chief spokesman for the government, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and his defense ministry counterpart Gen. Bashir Magashi confirmed the suspicions at a press conference in the president’s compound in Abuja.
“What is happening now is that there is a kind of unholy handshake between bandits and Boko Haram insurgents,” Mohammed said, according to media reports.
“Preliminary reports of what transpired at the Kaduna train attack show that there is a kind of collaboration between the bandits and dislodged Boko Haram terrorists from the northeast.
“We are fighting an asymmetrical war, a war in which the other side does not obey or recognize the rules of engagement, but where we are compelled to fight according to the rules of engagement.
“What happened two Mondays ago shook the whole country, yes, but that is the modus operandi of terrorists,” Mohammed said.
He was referring to a terrorist force that used an improvised explosive device to derail a passenger train on March 28 near Kaduna City.
The terrorists, who killed nine people and kidnapped more than 168 are believed to be the same gang that attacked a train last year and shot down a Nigerian air force fighter in Zamfara state on July 18, 2021, according to Murtala Rufa’i, a historian at Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto and a recognized expert on bandits.
The bandit leader who is responsible for these sophisticated attacks is Kachalla Ali, and his base of operation is Birnin Gwari, in Kaduna state,” Rufa’i told Burton News in an exclusive interview.
Kachalla Ali’s high-profile attacks have established his position as the most powerful gang leader in the northwest, according to Rufa’i. His gang members are reputed to be “fearless fighters,” according to media reports.
“I am happy that the Nigerian government has acknowledged that the Boko Haram insurgents and the bandits are allied,” said Dr. Gregory Stanton, an African genocide expert in Virginia and the Founder of Genocide Watch.
“The U.S. government also needs to acknowledge that there is a connection between the bandits and the ethnic Fulani jihadists,” Stanton added. “It’s time for the U.S. government and other governments to wake up and realize this is already a genocide. This is not violence due to climate change,” he added.
The sophistication of the attack was evident in the planning and logistics of the operation. The use of Improvised Explosive Devices is not typical for bandits. In addition, the terrorists had arranged for a fleet of vehicles to take the 168 hostages quickly from the derailed train.
A week after the train attack the bandits released a wealthy hostage, Alwan Hassan, acting CEO of the Bank of Agriculture, and posted a video in which three masked bandits spoke in Arabic and the Hausa language, according to media reports. Hassan reportedly paid a ransom equivalent to $225,000.
Security analysts said that some bandits speaking in the video spoke with Fulani accents, but one spoke with an accent linking him to northeast Nigeria where Boko Haram has maintained a presence for 12 years.
Some security analysts speculate that the jihadists behind the train attack are linked to the Ansaru insurgency that split off from Boko Haram and which has operated in Kaduna as a kidnapping gang.
“The bandits who spoke in the video said they are not after ransom and that government knows what they want. Judging from their language and posture, these are not bandits,” according to a tweet from analyst Bulama Bukarti, a senior analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
“They are likely members of the Ansaru faction of Boko Haram, and their demand is likely to be the release of their leaders who have been in detention,” he tweeted.
Nigerian media reported April 12 that the bandits had announced that the train hostages could be released in exchange for the release of 16 of their top commanders.
The bandits were killing and kidnapping in several villages on the border zone of the federal capital territory in the first days of April, according to conflict reporter Stephen Kefas. They travel on motorbikes in numbers approaching 1,000, he said. They have taken their hostages to their forest havens in Shiroro County in northeast Niger state, where they are confident the Nigerian army will not attack them, Kefas said.
The emerging threat facing Nigeria is reflected in the trepidation of pastors in all parts of the country to travel by train or bus. The level of fear among the ordinary citizenry has reached a new level, according to Judd Saul, an Iowa-based missionary who has administered a non-governmental organization called Equipping the Persecuted in Kaduna state for 10 years.
“We organized a conference in April for 200 clergy who came from all regions in Nigeria,” Saul commented. “What we learned is that no matter what state Nigerians live in, they are afraid for their lives if they have to travel from one town to another.”
The invasion of Boko Haram into the Shiroro County of northern Niger state was reported in April of 2021 when Gov. Abubakar Sani Bello announced it in a press conference in which he pleaded with the federal government for assistance.
Yet, until April 13 the Federal Government had not acknowledged the union of these two potent threats to civil order.
The term “Boko Haram”, which means “foreign learning is forbidden,” is loosely applied to terrorist groups ranging from Ansaru, linked to al-Qaida, to the “Islamic State of West Africa”, (ISWAP) which has overshadowed Boko Haram since the suicide death of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, on May 23, 2021.
The number of organized bandits terrorizing villages and towns in the five sprawling states of northwestern Nigeria is believed to be at least 10,000 and may be as many as 30,000, according to James Barnett, a nonresident scholar at the Hudson Institute.
Unlike most jihadists, bandit gangs tolerate the use of narcotics and alcohol, and they victimize both Muslims and Christians.
"If the largest bandit gang of the Northwest really has made [an] alliance with Boko Haram, then God help us!" warned Rufa'i.
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