In a continuing escalation of violence, Boko Haram has now taken its campaign to another level, seizing and controlling large swaths of land in Nigeria’s northeast. The group’s five-year rampage has killed over 10,000 people, and the government’s declaration of a state of emergency last year in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa has done little to quell the violent insurgency. Boko Haram capped its recent takeover of Gwoza, a Borno town with a population of 50,000, by declaring an Islamic caliphate in the region.
Celebrating this achievement, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video over the weekend, which was obtained by AFP. In the 52-minute film, Shekau declares the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, asserting that “[f]or us there is nothing like Nigeria but Islamic Caliphate.” He does not mention the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or his recent declaration of a caliphate.
In Boko Haram’s latest video, Shekau is shown standing in front of three SUVs, wearing military fatigues with a Kalashnikov slung across his body, as he rants to the camera while holding a notebook in his left hand from which he reads. He claims: “Allah commands us to rule Gwoza by Islamic law. In fact, he commands us to rule the rest of the world, not only Nigeria, and now we have started.” Filmed in what looks to be a forest clearing, the video does not clearly indicate whether Shekau is in Gwoza or at some other location.
As in other Boko Haram videos, Shekau appears flanked by four of his fighters who each stand at attention, wearing a mask and holding the muzzle of a rifle. He declares that Boko Haram is responsible for recent attacks in Abuja, Damaturu, Damboa, and other areas of the country, and thanks Allah for their success.
Shekau further declares that the areas of Nigeria under Boko Haram’s control now constitute a caliphate, stating, “We are in an Islamic Caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name.” The UN humanitarian office, OCHA, confirmed reports earlier this month that Gwoza was controlled by the rebels.
During the first week of August, Boko Haram stormed Gwoza, killing at least 50 people, and raising its flag over the area. At the time of the attack, there were no Nigerian forces present to protect civilians.
Gwoza and its surroundings are no stranger to Boko Haram. In February, 121 people were killed in the village of Izghe, and on May 25, over 20 churchgoers were killed in Gwoza town during a service. The following day, six churches were among many properties set alight in Gwoza by the insurgents. Gwoza’s emir, Alhaji Idrissa Timta, was shot and killed by Boko Haram members in May. His successor, who is also his son, went missing in the Boko Haram attacks on Gwoza that occurred on Aug. 6.
Since early August, the Gwoza area has been subject to several more attacks. On Aug. 23, Boko Haram hit a police training academy outside of Gwoza for the third time this month. In the latest attack, at least 35 Nigerian police officers went missing. The Nigerian government has “refused to confirm whether the officers were killed in the raid, taken by Boko Haram, or had gone in hiding from the armed fighters,” however.
The video also contains footage of Boko Haram fighters raiding villages, and Nigerian soldiers running away from the insurgents. Boko Haram members are shown walking alongside and behind several trucks and vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns. The video also shows that Boko Haram has more than one armored personnel carrier for its operations. And footage is included of Boko Haram fighters pillaging what looks to be a recently raided military base; the viewer is shown boxes of bullets and other ammunition, mortars, and other artillery being loaded into trucks.
In the latest message, Shekau vows to strike back at local community members who have joined vigilante groups in the region to protect themselves and their families. Going further, Shekau threatens:
And I swear by Allah that we will never stop killing you, because Allah commanded us to kill people like you. If we pity you and spare you, one day you will become infidels. So, to us, having pity on you is an act of disbelief. You can continue to run or hide your identities in women’s attire, but we will get to you and remove the women’s clothing off of you. Then, while you are shouting for mercy, we will strike, smash your heads and kill you all. Even if you don’t do anything to us we will kill you …. We would do it even to avenge our brethren. You killed our brethren in large numbers.
He also vaguely threatens the United States, Israel, and France, saying: “Who is America in the sight of Allah? …. We don’t fear you at all. …. We were the ones who carried out all these attacks. Not just Gwoza, all the attacks you see in Borno or any country we are the ones carrying them out. This is the life for us; it is our world and we are living it out…. This is the speech I have to make; which is a warning for worse things to come. Better submit to Allah before it becomes too late.”
At the end of the video, Boko Haram includes gruesome footage showing approximately 20 men in civilian clothes lying on their stomachs with their hands tied behind their backs being executed by gunfire at close range. Two other men are beaten to death with shovels after they allegedly tried to escape dressed as women.
Responding to the video, the Nigerian military rejected Shekau’s claims, releasing a statement on Twitter stating that Nigeria’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Nigerian state is still intact.” The military has also promised to mount an offensive in the northeast “soon.”
In addition to Gwoza, several other areas in Nigeria’s north, particularly in Borno state, as well as one town in Yobe state, are thought to be under Boko Haram’s control.
The video provides the first reported instance of Shekau referring to a larger caliphate, a term and goal frequently mentioned by Islamic terrorists around the world, but it may suggest that Boko Haram’s aims are not exclusively local. In a video released last month, Shekau had voiced his support for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, as well as for leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
It is unclear whether Shekau’s declaration of a caliphate in Nigeria amounts to an attempt to link his group to the Islamic State caliphate recently claimed in Syria and Iraq by al Baghdadi, or “if he is referring to a separate Nigerian caliphate.”
Today the BBC reported that some 480 Nigerian troops have fled Boko Haram and crossed over the border into the Cameroon, and are being accommodated in the town of Maroa. The soldiers are said to have fled clashes with Boko Haram in the border towns of Gamboru Ngala and Banki in Borno state; the terror group killed over 300 people in Gamboru Ngala in May. The Nigerian military dismissed reports of a rout or mass defection and claimed the soldiers were conducting a “tactical manoeuvre.”