How an Islamist preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools

How a preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools
By Tim Cocks

FAUBE, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – When an Islamist preacher took up the fight in Burkina Faso’s northern borderlands almost a decade ago, his only weapon was a radio station. The words he spoke kindled the anger of a frustrated population, and helped turn their homes into a breeding ground for jihad.

Residents of this parched region in the Sahel – a vast band of thorny scrub beneath the Sahara Desert – remember applauding Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko as he denounced his country’s Western-backed government and racketeering police over the airwaves.

“We cheered,” said Adama Kone, a 32-year-old teacher from the town of Djibo near the frontier with Mali, who was one of those thrilled by Dicko’s words. “He understood our anger. He gave the Fulani youth a new confidence.”

Mostly herders, young men like Kone from the Fulani people were feeling hemmed in by more prosperous farmers, whom they felt the government in Ouagadougou favored. The preacher successfully exploited their conflicts over dwindling land and water resources, and the frustrations of people angered by corrupt and ineffective government, to launch the country’s first indigenous jihadi movement. That cleared a path for groups affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Since Dicko’s first broadcasts, Burkina Faso has become the focus of a determined jihadi campaign by three of West Africa’s most dangerous armed groups who have carved out influence in nearly a third of the country, while much of the world was focused on the crisis in neighboring Mali. Militant Islamist fighters close schools, gun down Christians in their places of worship and booby-trap corpses to blow up first responders. At least 39 people died last week in an ambush on a convoy ferrying workers from a Canadian-owned mine in the country. There has been no claim for that ambush, but the modus operandi – a bomb attack on military escorts followed by gunmen unleashing bullets – was characteristic of Islamist groups. [nL8N27P0IA]

Since 2016, the violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 500,000 – most of them this year.

In 2019, at least 755 people had died through October in violence involving jihadist groups across Burkina Faso, according to Reuters’ analysis of political violence events recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO. Actual numbers are likely higher – researchers aren’t always able to identify who is involved in the violence.

The teacher Kone is one of many of Dicko’s former supporters who regret their earlier enthusiasm.

“We handed them the microphones in our mosques,” he said. “By the time we realized what they were up to, it was too late.”

He fled to Ouagadougou two years ago, after armed Islamists showed up at his school. More than 2,000 schools have closed due to the violence, the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF said in August.

A LOCAL CHANNEL

A lean, bespectacled Fulani from the north, Malam Dicko broadcast a message of equality and modesty. He reportedly died of an illness in late 2017, but his sermons channeled deep grievances in Burkina Faso’s north where impoverished people have long been frustrated by corrupt officials.

The province of northern Burkina Faso where Dicko lived scores 2.7 on the United Nations Human Development Index, compared with 6 for the area around the capital, Ouagadougou. About 40% of its children are stunted by malnutrition, against only 6% in the capital, according to U.S. AID.

From Ouagadougou to Djibo is a four-hour drive on a road which peters out into a sandy track. Sparse villages dot a landscape of sand and withered trees. Goats devour scrappy patches of grass.

Residents complain that their few interactions with the state tend to be predatory: Bureaucrats demand money to issue title deeds for houses, then never provide the papers; gendarmes charge up to $40 to take down a complaint; there are mysterious taxes and extortion at police roadblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Kanou Coulibaly, a military police squadron commander and head of training for Burkina Faso’s armed forces, acknowledged that northerners “feel marginalized and abandoned by the central government.”

In about 2010 preacher Dicko, who had studied in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, began tapping this discontent, recalled Kone and other former Djibo residents. He denounced corruption by traditional religious leaders and practices that he deemed un-Islamic, including lavish wedding and naming ceremonies.

The movement he created, Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam), opened a path to militants from outside Burkina Faso — particularly Mali.

Early in 2013, French forces were pounding northern Mali to wrest control from al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized the region the previous year. Dicko slipped over the border to join the militants, said Oumarou Ibrahim, a Sufi preacher who knew Dicko and was close to the No. 2 in his movement, Amadou Boly.

In Mali, Ibrahim said, Dicko linked up with Amadou Koufa, a fellow Fulani whose forces have unleashed turmoil on central Mali in recent years. French forces detained Dicko near the border with Algeria; he was released in 2015.

He set up his own training camp in a forest along the Mali-Burkina border, Kone, the teacher, and Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, told Reuters.

Dicko forged ties with a group of Malian armed bandits who controlled drug and livestock trade routes.

On the radio that year, he urged youths to back him, “even at the cost of spilling blood.”

“WHITES AND COLONIZERS”

For some years Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, had managed to keep good relations with Mali’s Islamists. But in 2014, he tried to change the constitution to extend his 27-year-rule. Residents of the capital drove him from office.

Without Compaore, Burkina Faso became a target. Barely two weeks into a new presidency, in January 2016, an attack on the Splendid Hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou killed 30 people. It was claimed by al Qaeda-linked militants based in northern Mali.

Dicko became even more radical after that: He fell out with associates including his No. 2, Boly.

Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, said Boly came to his house in Belhoro village in November 2016, agitated because Dicko had ordered him to raise cash to pay for AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers from Mali.

Boly refused. Dicko threatened him, Ibrahim said. Boly was either with him, “or with the whites and the colonizers.”

Two weeks later, gunmen assassinated Boly outside his Djibo home. Ibrahim said he fled his own village the next day.

The teacher Kone, whose house was down the street, said he heard the gunshots that day. A wave of killings followed. The militants assassinated civil servants, blew up security posts, executed school teachers.

One day in May 2017, Kone was running late for school when he got a phone call from a colleague. Armed men from Dicko’s movement had come and asked after him.

He shuttered the school and sped to Ouagadougou.

BOOBY TRAPS

Now headed by Dicko’s brother Jafar, Ansarul Islam was sanctioned by the United States in February 2018. None of its leaders could be reached.

It still controls much of Burkina Faso’s northern border areas but two other groups have also built a presence on the country’s borders, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara dominates along the eastern frontier with Niger. And Koufa’s Macina Liberation Front, which is closely aligned to al Qaeda, is active on the western border with Mali.

These spheres of influence can be loose: Fighters for all three are believed to cooperate with each other and with bandit groups.

Their attacks – including the kidnap and killing of a Canadian citizen in January claimed by Islamic State – are becoming more brutal. In one instance in March, a Burkinabe security official told Reuters, militants stitched a bomb inside a corpse and dressed it up in an army uniform, killing two medics – a technique used by Malian fighters.

Recent attacks on churches have killed about 20 people, and a priest was kidnapped in March.

The European Union and member states have committed 8 billion euros ($9 billion) over six years to tackling poverty in the region but so far, responses from Ouagadougou and the West have been predominantly military.

The United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali. Almost 200 members have been killed – its deadliest mission ever.

France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The United States has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite all this, Islamist violence has spread to places previously untouched by it, as tensions like those that first kindled support for Dicko intensify.

“You have a solution that is absolutely militarized to a problem that is absolutely political,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “The security response is not addressing these problems.”

CYCLE OF ABUSE

The fact that a large number of recruits are Fulani has triggered a backlash by other ethnic groups, and those who have fled northern Burkina Faso say they had scant protection.

One woman said gunmen on motorbikes attacked her village, Biguelel, last December. The gunmen accused her family of colluding with “terrorists” simply because they were Fulani. They torched her home and shot her husband and dozens of others dead, but she escaped.

The next day the woman, Mariam Dicko, and about 40 others went to a military police post in the nearby town of Yirgou. “They said it was over now, so they couldn’t help us,” said Dicko – a common surname in the country.

Kanou, the military police commander, acknowledged that troops were sometimes not present when needed. “But when patrols are being attacked, it’s more difficult,” he added. “We have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

As Western forces rely increasingly on their Sahel partners, rights groups and residents say they sometimes overlook abuses by locals. Four witnesses described to Reuters summary executions of suspected insurgents during search operations. These included an incident in the village of Belhoro on Feb. 3, in which security forces ordered nine men out of their homes and shot them dead, according to two women who saw the killings.

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 19 such incidents in a report in March, during which it says 116 men and boys were captured and killed by security forces. The government said the army is committed to human rights and is investigating the allegations. “In our struggle there will necessarily be innocent victims, not because we want to, but because we are in a tough zone,” Kanou said. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said America takes up any “mistakes” with the government.

In November 2018, Burkinabe forces raided the village home of a lab technician at a clinic in Djibo, accusing his 60-year-old father of being a terrorist, two friends of his told Reuters.

They killed the father in front of his son.

The following week, the technician, Jibril Dicko, didn’t show up for work. His phone went dead.

Neighbors said he had gone to join the jihad.

 

(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London and Thiam Ndaga in Ouagadougou; Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith)

Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Teen from New Mexico compound says he was trained for jihad: FBI

FILE PHOTO: Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew HayREUTERS/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 13-year-old boy who was part of group taken into custody at a squalid New Mexico compound last month has told FBI agents his mother’s boyfriend was training him to conduct “jihad” against non-believers, according to federal court documents.

The boy was among 11 children and five adults living at the compound in Taos County when it was raided on Aug. 3 by local sheriff’s deputies who discovered a cache of firearms and the children living without food or clean water. The dead body of a three-year-old boy was found buried at the site later.

They initially faced state charges, then on Friday, the five adults including a Haitian woman described as the group’s leader, 35-year-old Jany Leveille, were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and accused of conspiracy and firearms offenses.

In an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint, an FBI special agent wrote that Leveille’s 13-year-old son told investigators that his mother’s boyfriend, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, wanted to “get an army together” and train them for jihad.

The boy told agents that Ibn Wahhaj trained him and another of Leveille’s teenage sons in firearms and military techniques, including rapid reloads and hand-to-hand combat, and told them jihad meant killing non-believers on behalf of Allah, according to the affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

The 13-year-old also told the FBI that his mother believed she received messages from God, and that he watched her and Ibn Wahhaj perform supposed “exorcism” rituals over the three-year-old boy, including one during which the boy choked and his heart stopped, according to the special agent’s affidavit.

The teenager said his mother and others at the compound told him not to talk to anyone about the three-year-old ever being at the compound because they would “all go to jail.”

Defense lawyers have said that the five adults were exercising their constitutional rights to practice their religion and own firearms, and that the group is being discriminated against because they are black and Muslim. The defense attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

The five defendants came under FBI surveillance in May after Leveille wrote a letter to Ibn Wahhaj’s brother asking him to join them and become a “martyr,” state prosecutors have said.

They are due to appear in court in Albuquerque on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Marguerita Choy)

Malaysian teacher seen as new ’emir’ of pro-Islamic State militants

Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines February 1, 2017.

By Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The battlefield deaths of two leaders of an Islamic State alliance in the southern Philippines could thrust a Malaysian who trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as the militant group’s new regional “emir”, experts and officials say.

Intelligence officials describe Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad as a financier and recruiter, who helped put together the coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters that stormed Marawi City in May.

Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two Middle East-educated brothers at the helm of the militant alliance, were killed in a raid on a building in Marawi and their bodies recovered on Monday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Philippine authorities said they were still searching for Mahmud.

“Based on our information, there is still one personality, Dr. Mahmud of Malaysia, and he is still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians,” military chief, Gen. Eduardo Ano, said on Monday. “But their attitude is now different, they are no longer as aggressive as before.” He did not elaborate.

Ano urged the 30 militants remaining in a shrinking combat zone to surrender and free hostages as troops stepped up their fight.

Abdullah Maute, the alliance’s military commander, was reported killed in August, though no body was found.

Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe Mahmud left Marawi months ago.

Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters in July that Mahmud “managed to sneak out from Marawi city to another safe place with his followers”.

The 39-year-old Mahmud, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was a university lecturer in Kuala Lumpur, was Hapilon’s second-in-command in the IS’s Southeast Asia “caliphate”, according to a July report by Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).

 

RECRUITMENT AND FINANCING

Sitting in the inner circle of the Marawi command center, Mahmud controlled recruitment and financing, the IPAC report said.

He was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East, it said.

“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr. Mahmud … he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones told Reuters.

Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as

“the most important IS leader in Southeast Asia”.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counter-terrorism advisor to the police, said Mahmud often solicited funds for IS operations.

“He’s always the one asking people “does anyone have any money they’d like to donate?”, and he will usually reply when followers in the region ask him about the situation in the Philippines,” Ahmad said.

 

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV/File Photo

 

‘JUST DISAPPEARED’

Mahmud grew up in Batu Caves, a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb, famous for a Hindu temple housed in a large complex of caverns.  Mahmud’s wife and three children were last known to be living there, although Reuters could not locate them.

Before leaving Malaysia in 2014, Mahmud taught young Muslim students at a tahfiz, a school to memorise the Koran, in Nakhoda, a village near Batu Caves, residents said.

“When he (Mahmud) started the school, he did stay there for the first one or two years, but then he just disappeared,” said 50-year-old Zainon Mat Arshad, a Nakhoda resident who went to the mosque where Mahmud prayed.

“When he was at the tahfiz school, he kept mostly to himself and if he had come over to pray on Friday, I don’t think anyone would have recognized him,” said Zainon. “He didn’t mingle with the local community.”

Security experts say Mahmud studied at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan where he learned to make improvised explosive devices at an al Qaeda camp.

In 2000, he returned to Malaysia to get a doctorate, which earned him a post as a lecturer in the Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

Former students described Mahmud as a quiet person who kept to himself.

“He wasn’t the kind of lecturer who hung out at cafes with his students as some others did,” said one former student, who declined to be identified.

 

WROTE JIHAD BOOK

The few signs of his militant beliefs were discovered later, including a book he wrote on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah, said Ahmad, the IIUM lecturer.

He was put on Malaysia’s most-wanted list in April 2014 after leaving the country with several others, including his aide, a Malaysian bomb maker named Mohammad Najib Husen, to work with the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, Ahmad said.

Mahmud received funding for the Marawi operation directly from IS headquarters, through the group’s Southeast Asian unit led by Syrian-based Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, the IPAC report said.

In a video released by the Philippines army in June, Mahmud is seen alongside Hapilon as well as Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute – the pair of brothers who orchestrated the Marawi siege.

 

 

(Editing by Praveen Menon and Bill Tarrant)

 

Islamic State seeking alliance with al Qaeda, Iraqi vice president says

A member of the Iraqi rapid response forces walks past a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, at a hospital damaged by clashes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq,

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State is talking to al Qaeda about a possible alliance as Iraqi troops close in on IS fighters in Mosul, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an interview on Monday.

Allawi said he got the information on Monday from Iraqi and regional contacts knowledgeable about Iraq.

“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri,” referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

Islamic State split from al Qaeda in 2014 and the two groups have since waged an acrimonious battle for recruits, funding and the mantle of global jihad. Zawahiri has publicly criticized Islamic State for its brutal methods, which have included beheadings, drownings and immolation.

It is unclear how exactly the two group may work together, Allawi said.

Islamic State blazed across large swathes of northern Iraq in 2014, leaving the Iraqi central government reeling. Baghdadi declared a caliphate over the territory the group controlled from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul the same year, which also became a point of contention with al Qaeda.

Last October, Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite volunteer fighters, commonly referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units teamed up with an international coalition, including the United States, to drive Islamic State from of Mosul and the areas surrounding the city.

The group has been pushed out of the half of Mosul that lies east of the Tigris River, but Iraqi soldiers and their allies are now bogged down in tough fighting in the narrow streets of the Old City of Mosul, west of the river, according to Iraqi security officials .

Islamic State has used suicide bombers, snipers and armed drones to defend the territory under their control. The group has also repeatedly targeted civilians or used them as human shields during the fighting, according to Iraqi and American security officials.

The militant group has lost ground in Mosul but still controls the towns of Qaim, Hawija and Tal Afar in Iraq as well as Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

Even if Islamic State loses its territory in Iraq, Allawi said, it will not simply go away.

“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air,” Allawi said, referring to the group by a commonly used acronym. “They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Larry King)

Boko Haram attacks destroy farm communities, bring famine risk

Nigerian Women and Children waiting at a nutrition clinic

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Fati Adamu has not seen three of her six children nor her husband since Boko Haram militants attacked her hometown in northeast Nigeria in an hail of bullets.

Two years on, she is among thousands of refugees at the Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, the city worst hit by a seven-year-old insurgency that has forced more than two million people to flee their homes.

The United Nations says 400,000 children are now at risk from a famine in the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – 75,000 of whom could die from hunger within the next few months.

A push against the jihadists by the Nigerian army and soldiers from neighboring countries has enabled troops to enter remote parts of the northeast in the last few months, revealing tens of thousands on the brink of starvation and countless families torn apart.

“I don’t know if they are dead or alive,” Adamu, 35, said of her missing relatives.

There is a renewed threat of Boko Haram attacks. The start of the dry season has seen a surge in suicide bombings, some of which have targeted camps, including one at Bakassi in October which killed five people.

The World Food Programme said it provides food aid to 450,000 people in Borno and Yobe. Some 200,000 of them receive 17,000 naira each month to buy food, soon to rise to 23,000.

At least 15 camps, mostly on the outskirts of Maiduguru, the Borno state capital, are home to thousands of people unable to return home and surviving on food rations.

At one known as New Prison, women and children visibly outnumber men, many of whom were killed by Boko Haram or are missing.

One man — 45-year-old Bukaralhaji Bukar, who has eight children from his two wives — said the food he buys with the monthly stipend finishes within two weeks.

“We are suffering. It is not enough,” said Bukar, who begs on the street to make money.

In the center of Maiduguri, life seems to be returning to normal. Food markets are bustling but soldiers in pick-ups clutching rifles are reminders of the need for vigilance.

MALNOURISHED CHILDREN

In a ward in Molai district near the Bakassi camp, the air is filled with the sound of crying babies and the gurgle of those who lack the energy to cry. Some, whose skin clings tightly to their bones, are silent – too weary to even raise their heads.

“Many of them are malnourished, which is already bad enough, but they also develop things like malaria which further worsens their illnesses because they can’t eat and start vomiting,” said Dr Iasac Bot, who works at the unit overseen by the charity Save the Children.

Children have conditions ranging from diarrhea and pneumonia to bacterial infections and skin infections.

Hauwa Malu, 20, fled with her husband and their two-week-old daughter, Miriam, from her village in Jere after Boko Haram militants burned the farming community to the ground and took their cattle.

Miriam, now aged 10 months, has suffered from fevers, a persistent cough and is malnourished. Her mother said they have been left without a home or livelihood.

Tim Vaessen of the Food and Agriculture Organization said a failure to restore their ability to farm would in the long term mean displaced people would depend on expensive food aid.

“They would remain in these camps, they would become easy targets for other armed groups and they might have to migrate again – even up to Europe,” he said.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State calls on members to carry out jihad in Russia

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. Picture taken February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Dado

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State called on its group members to carry out jihad in Russia in a nine-minute YouTube video on Sunday.

“Listen Putin, we will come to Russia and will kill you at your homes … Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them,” a masked man driving a car in the desert yelled while wagging his finger in the last couple of minutes of the video.

The video with subtitles showed footage of armed men attacking armored vehicles and tents and collecting arms in the desert. “Breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat,” read one subtitle.

It was not immediately possible to independently verify the video but the link to the footage was published on a Telegram messaging account used by the militant group.

It was not immediately clear why Russia would be a target, but Russia and the U.S. are talking about boosting military and intelligence cooperation against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria.

Islamic State has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.

There has been a string of deadly attacks claimed by Islamic state in Europe over the past weeks. Last week, assailants loyal to Islamic State forced an elderly Catholic priest in France to his knees before slitting his throat. Since the mass killing in Nice, southern France on July 14, there have been four incidents in Germany, including the most recent suicide bombing at a concert in Ansbach.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelatti writing by Amina Ismail; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Alison Williams and Marguerita Choy)

Activists put pressure on Nigerian government for kidnapped schoolgirls

Bring Back Our Girls" campaigner Christabell Ibrahim, 8, speaks during the media conference marking two years from the abduction of the Chibok girls, in Abuja

By Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS/ABUJA (Reuters) – A video showing 15 of the 219 schoolgirls held by the jihadist group Boko Haram has added pressure on the Nigerian government to secure their release, after activists accused authorities of mishandling the case in the two years since their mass kidnap.

Weeping parents identified the girls captured by Boko Haram fighters, who want to establish an Islamist state in northeast Nigeria and have waged a seven-year campaign of violence, killing thousands of people and displacing two million.

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected a year ago on a promise to end endemic graft and crush the group, said in December the government could talk to Boko Haram if credible representatives emerged.

In January he said the government was launching a new investigation into the kidnapping, vowing to return the girls captured at a school in the town of Chibok while taking exams. But little has emerged since then.

In the video, apparently taken in December and given to government officials by Boko Haram as proof of life for the negotiations, a person asks the 15 girls to say their names as they stand quietly in two rows, wearing headscarves.

“I saw all the girls and they are Chibok girls,” Esther Yakubu, a parent of one of the abducted girls who saw the video broadcast by CNN said. “I recognize some of them because we are in the same area with them.”

Yakubu was marching with some 30 other parents and activists to the presidential villa in the capital Abuja to demand the government do more to return the girls. Police stopped them at the road leading to the villa.

Witnesses to the kidnapping, Nigerian military and security officials, Western diplomats and counter-terrorism experts blame a series of failings by politicians and the military in dealing with the militants, including a lack of co-ordination.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told CNN the government was still reviewing the video. When asked about efforts to get the girls released he only said: “There are ongoing talks.”

A top government official who declined to be named said an official reaction would only be made once the military had established the video’s authenticity.

INFORMATION “LOST”

Activists said Buhari’s government is not doing enough, urging the state to use the video for clues to find the girls and speak to girls who had managed to flee Boko Haram captivity.

“The incredible wealth of information that victims of terrorists can offer our security forces is being lost in the current undefined and ineffective approach,” Aisha Yesufu of the #BringBackOurGirls group said in a statement.

Buhari has blamed his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan who was slow to react to the abduction.

Under Buhari’s command, Nigerian troops backed up by Chad, Niger and Cameroon have recaptured most of territory held by Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year.

However, Boko Haram has no unified leadership which makes it difficult for the government to find someone to negotiate with, analysts say.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video circulated last month in which he seemed to suggest he was ailing and Boko Haram was losing its effectiveness. But another video emerged last week saying there would be no surrender.

Fulan Nasrullah, a security analyst, said there was little chance of a breakthrough in the talks between the government and the militants after the failure of previous efforts.

“The government is angry about the leak, as are the insurgents,” he said. “The insurgents are not currently willing to negotiate for the girls following the government’s alleged bad faith in previous negotiations,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuoha, Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans)