Boko Haram attacked a school in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on May… (Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP/Getty…)
MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA — In brutally poor neighborhoods and mansions alike, this city choked by military checkpoints seethes with rumors, paranoia and conspiracy theories. Even academics like to assert a favorite: The homegrown Islamic extremist movement that is terrorizing northern Nigeria is a CIA creation.
Others are convinced that the extremist group known as Boko Haram is a plot by the southern-led Nigerian government to create an eternal crisis in the north.
How else to explain Boko Haram's transformation from a group of radicals stashing homemade weapons to an organization that has half the country on military alert and U.S. lawmakers warning of threats to American interests?
But outsiders have a more chilling explanation: The group has capitalized on ties to a neighboring Al Qaeda offshoot and access to large amounts of explosives, ammunition and weapons, some of which may be flowing out of Libya since the fall of Moammar Kadafi's regime.
That has not only made the group a danger to the Nigerian government, which appears uncertain how to deal with an increasingly bloody insurgency here in the mostly Muslim north, but has also raised the specter of a broader holy war.
A U.S. House subcommittee on counter-terrorism and intelligence concluded in November that Boko Haram could pose a growing threat to U.S. interests and called on the State Department to consider designating it a terrorist organization. A January report to the United Nations Security Council said members of the group received training from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb last year in Mali.
Since the beginning of 2011, Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 people in a Taliban-style campaign to topple the government and impose sharia, Islamic law, across Africa's most populous country. The escalating series of suicide car bombings and coordinated assaults has rattled the capital, Abuja, central Nigeria and even the predominantly Christian south.
In August, it attacked the Abuja headquarters of the U.N., described by a Boko Haram spokesman as a "forum of all global evil," killing 25 people. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria warned last month that Boko Haram might carry out attacks on major Abuja hotels, echoing a similar warning late last year. It has prohibited staff members from visiting northern Nigeria.
The group, whose name means "Western education is a sin," also recently warned all Christians to leave northern Nigeria, prompting many to pack up and head south, an ominous development in a country already riven by horrific religious and ethnic violence.
The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, flanked by four masked and armed men, warned in an Al Qaeda-style video last month that the group would "devour" Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, rebuffing Jonathan's earlier claim that the insurgency would be crushed by midyear.
"We are proud soldiers of Allah. We will never give up as we fight the infidels. We will emerge as winners," Shekau said. "We will finish you and end your government."
Boko Haram radically changed its tactics and ideology after mid-2010 when a leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said in an interview that his group would give the militants weapons and training, analyst J. Peter Pham contended in a paper last month for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
Boko Haram was once obsessed only with its fight against the Nigerian government, but its rhetoric is increasingly focused on international enemies.
The first outward sign of its transformation came in June. The group, known for drive-by assassinations and attacks on police and army outposts, launched Nigeria's first suicide bombing, against the police headquarters in Abuja, followed two months later by the suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters there.
Complicating the problem is corruption in Nigeria's security forces, which has seen Boko Haram suspects "escape" from police custody more than once. Jonathan said in January that the extremists had infiltrated the government and security agencies.
"Some of them are in the executive arm of government, some are in the parliamentary arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary. Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies," he said.
He said in a recent interview that that there was "no doubt" that Boko Haram had links with Islamic extremist groups in Africa.
In Maiduguri, Boko Haram's birthplace and main base, the group is so powerful and its support so extensive that no part of society is untouched.
"These people, Boko Haram, are people from this town," said Mohammad Kaigama of the city's motorcycle taxi association. "They are there in any part of society. Whatever group that you know, they are in it. I don't know if some of them are my members."