Victims of north Nigerian institution share stories of terror

People protest outside the building where hundreds of men and boys were rescued from captivity by police in Kaduna, Nigeria September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

By Alexis Akwagyiram

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – When Jibril had tried to escape as a boy from an institution in Nigeria that called itself a place of Islamic teachings, he said he was hung up by his arms until bones in his shoulders broke.

Another teenager, one of about 400 men and boys freed in Thursday’s police raid, said boys were often kept in chains and those caught stealing food were whipped until they bled.

“They used car engine belts and electrical cables to flog us,” 15-year-old Suleiman told Reuters, staring at the floor. “Teachers used to sexually harass us … They tried to loosen my pants once but I fought them off and was beaten.”

Horror stories are emerging about life in a two-story house in Nigeria’s northern city of Kaduna as the authorities try to find families of the victims who often spent years at the site.

Police arrested seven adults in the raid on the building, which had a sign in Arabic at the entrance declaring itself “House of Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal for the Application of Islamic Teachings”.

Some parents paid fees, believing it was an Islamic school. Some described it as a good institution and dismissed talk of abuse. Others saw it as a correctional facility. Police and regional officials said it was not registered as either.

Despite mixed accounts about its role, the abuse reported by victims has thrown a spotlight on Nigeria’s struggle to provide enough school places for its rapidly expanding population, leaving a gap for unregulated institutions that poor parents sometimes turn to.

The West African nation’s population will swell from 190 million to 400 million by 2050, according to U.N. figures. Primary education is officially free but about 10.5 million Nigerian children aged five to 14 are not in school.

“Nigeria is facing a demographic tidal wave,” said Matthew Page, an associate fellow with the Africa Programme at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“The long-term viability of the Nigerian economy – and the state itself – hinges on the government, religious, and traditional institutions developing a plan to address this challenge before it becomes impossible to remedy,” he said.

Prior to Thursday’s police raid, those who made it out of the Kaduna institution were sometimes returned by families. Some parents said they needed to discipline wayward children and others said they were too poor to look after all their kids.

Kaduna state government said there were at least 77 boys under 18 years old held there. The youngest was five.

Reuters spoke with seven victims and five parents of those who had been inside, withholding their full names to protect their privacy.

SHACKLED

All the victims said beatings were regular and said children and men were frequently shackled. Days were dark, long and hungry: food was only served at 10 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Suleiman’s elder brother sent him to the institution five months ago for skipping school. He was signed up to board while he studied Arabic and Islam’s holy book, the Quran.

“They beat us everywhere in the house, even in the mosque. If you asked to speak with your family, they would shackle you,” said the 15-year-old, who showed sores, scabs and scars on back.

When Suleiman and three friends were caught trying to steal some garri – a staple food made from cassava shavings – they were stripped and whipped, he said.

“When the police raided the school the whole place was in pandemonium, we were so happy,” he said. “What I want now is to return home. I’ll be a good boy.”Jibril, now 17 and who was hung up for trying to escape when he was 10, said boys faced a stark choice: submit to regular sexual assault or be beaten. Jibril chose beatings.

“The teachers and prefects raped boys. Those who were sexually molested were enticed with canned fish. Those of us who refused were caned,” he said, blaming a scar beside his left eye on a caning. “They used planks of wood to beat us.”

He now struggles to raise his arms since his punishment for trying to escape. He was sent home for six months after that incident. His family returned him when he had healed.

Jibril and Suleiman are now in a safe house on the edge of Kaduna while the authorities try to find their relatives. Their temporary home is filled with laughter as boys and teenagers, up to 17 years old, play together. Those adults who were freed are staying in a neighboring building.

At the Kaduna institution, relatives were not allowed to see boys for three months after admission and had limited visiting rights after that, parents and children said. Punishment was swift for those who talked of any abuse, boys said.

“If anyone tried to tell their family, they would be hung up from a wall or put in chains,” said 14-year-old Umar, whose grandfather sent him to the facility two years ago for skipping school.

SEXUAL ABUSE

About 40 police officers finally raided the building, acting on a complaint by an uncle who was denied access to his nephews.

Police said they found several boys and men in chains. Reuters filmed victims in chains on Thursday after the raid. Some boys said they were shackled to broken power generators, which they dragged around, including to bed or the bathroom.

Police said they expected to charge seven people, who they said ran the institution, over physical and sexual abuse allegations. Those arrested could not be reached for comment.

The building lies in Rigasa, a rundown Muslim district of Kaduna, a city that, like Nigeria, is evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

Reuters journalists who visited the labyrinthine building saw wheels and generators attached to metal chains. Floors were strewn with litter and stained sponge mattresses. Flies swarmed.

Children begged in the traffic on the streets outside.

Islamic schools, known as Almajiris, are common across the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria. Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), a local organization, estimates about 10 million children attend Islamic schools in the north.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, has sought to encourage school attendance, with programs that include one offering free school meals that the government says reaches 9.8 million children in 32 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

But Nigeria, an oil-producing state whose finances by the government’s admission have been drained by corruption, only spends 0.5% of gross domestic product on health and 1.7% on education, among the lowest worldwide, the International Monetary Fund said.

With few options, some parents defended the Kaduna institution, which charged fees of 35,000 naira ($114) a term.

“There is no problem in this school,” said a woman who only gave her name as Zainab, wearing a Muslim veil and speaking outside the locked gates. She said she had seven children at the institution where she cooked meals and had not seen any abuse.

Ahmed Balrabe, a tailor who lives next to the site, said two of his children attended the school and he had never encountered any abuse. “It was good for them, they became calm,” he said. “They showed them how to read the Quran. I liked it.”

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; Additional reporting by Garba Muhammad and Afolabi Sotunde; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Edmund Blair)

Police search Berlin properties linked to Christmas market attacker’s mosque

Anis Amri, the Tunisian suspect of the Berlin Christmas market attack, is seen in this photo taken from security cameras at Brussels North train station, Belgium, December 21, 2016. Federal Public Prosecutor's Office/Handout via Reuters.

BERLIN (Reuters) – German police on Tuesday raided more than 20 sites in Berlin with links to a mosque visited by a Tunisian asylum seeker who killed 12 people in an attack on a Christmas market in December.

In the raids, which began at 0500 GMT, some 450 officers searched apartments, two companies’ premises and six prison cells connected to an organisation called “Fussilet 33 e.V.”, which ran the mosque, the police said in a statement.

“The cause for these raids is the fact that Berlin’s state interior ministry has issued a ban against the ‘Fussilet 33’ organisation,” Berlin police spokesman Winfrid Wenzel said.

The Tunisian Anis Amri killed 12 people and injured dozens more on Dec. 19 by driving a truck into a crowded festive market in Berlin. [nL5N1EE5EG] Amri, who pledged allegiance to Islamic State, was shot dead by Italian police in Milan four days later.

Andreas Geisel, interior minister for the state of Berlin, told a news conference that Amri had regularly visited the mosque run by “Fussilet 33 e.V.” including on Dec. 19, only an hour or so before attacking the Christmas market.

The mosque has now been shut down, but Geisel said this was not only because of the Amri connection. Some senior members have been charged or already sentenced for supporting terrorist organisations abroad and preparing acts of violent subversion against the state, he said.

Geisel said Berlin was a cosmopolitan and tolerant city that welcomed people who are persecuted in their home countries or whose lives are in danger, and that should remain the case.

“But people who come here to carry out violent acts or preach violence or who, from Berlin, support organisations that carry out Islamist terrorism in countries like Syria and Iraq or collect money for that, train fighters for jihad, organise trips to these areas and recruit fighters for Islamist terrorism, are not welcome here,” he said.

Geisel said there had so far been no indications that members of the mosque organisation were planning further attacks in Berlin.

On Jan. 31 German police arrested three men on suspicion of having close links to Islamic State militants and planning to travel to the Middle East for combat training. Newspaper Bild reported that those men were frequent visitors at a mosque in the Berlin district of Moabit that Amri also used to visit. [nL5N1FL7DW]

(Reporting by Michelle Martin and Reuters TV; Editing by Louise Ireland and Gareth Jones)

Eight held in Austrian police raids linked to Islamic State

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian police took eight people into custody on Thursday in raids linked to potential connections with the militant group Islamic State, prosecutors in the city of Graz said.

Around 800 police officers took part in the raids in Vienna and Graz “due to suspected participation in a terrorist organization (‘IS’),” they said in a statement, adding that the coordinated action had been planned for some time.

The statement gave no more details, but a spokesman said the people taken into custody included three Austrian nationals with a migrant background, two Bosnians and a Syrian. The nationalities of the other suspects were not immediately known.

“There was no acute danger” and no indications of a concrete attack, the spokesman said, adding that the detentions were not connected to the arrest of an Austrian teenager last week on suspicion of planning an Islamist attack in Vienna.

That suspect, a 17-year-old with Albanian roots, was arrested on Friday after tip-offs from unspecified foreign countries. Austria alerted Germany to a related suspect, a 21-year-old who was arrested in the western German city of Neuss on Saturday. A boy thought to be 12 has also been held in Austria.

German authorities have been on high alert since a Tunisian failed asylum seeker rammed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin on Dec. 19, killing 12 people.

Police in Vienna have also been on heightened alert since Friday’s arrest and have increased patrols at transport hubs and busy public places.

(Reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna and Michael Shields in Zurich; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France confirms suspected mastermind of Paris attacks killed in raid

By John Irish and Gregory Blachier

PARIS (Reuters) – The suspected mastermind of last week’s Paris attacks was killed in the police raid of an apartment north of the capital, French officials said on Thursday.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian militant who had boasted of mounting attacks in Europe for the Islamic State, was accused of orchestrating last Friday’s coordinated bombings and shootings in the French capital, which killed 129 people.

“It was his body we discovered in the building, riddled with bullets,” a statement from the Paris prosecutor said, a day after the pre-dawn raid. The prosecutor later added that it was unclear whether Abaaoud had detonated a suicide belt.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls broke the news in Parliament to applause from lawmakers who were voting on Thursday to extend the country’s state of emergency for another three months.

“We know today … that the mastermind of the attacks – or one of them, let’s remain cautious – was among those dead,” Valls told reporters. Confirmation that Abaaoud was in Paris will focus more attention on European security services, who ahead of Friday’s attacks had thought he was still in Syria.

“This is a major failing,” said Roland Jaquard at the International Observatory for Terrorism.

Early on Wednesday morning, investigations led police to the house where Abaaoud was holed up in the Paris suburb of St. Denis. Heavily armed officers stormed the building before dawn, triggering a massive firefight and multiple explosions.

Officials had said on Wednesday that two people were killed in the raid, including a female suicide bomber who blew herself up. Forensic scientists were trying to determine whether a third person had died. Eight people were arrested.

Two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters the St. Denis cell had been planning a fresh attack on Paris’s La Defense business district. A source close to the investigation said the female bomber who was killed might have been Abaaoud’s cousin.

Investigators believe the attacks – the deadliest in France since World War Two – were set in motion in Syria, with Islamist cells in neighboring Belgium organizing the mayhem.

The victims came from 17 different countries, many of them young people out enjoying themselves at bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a soccer stadium near where Wednesday’s police raid took place.

Islamic State, which controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were in retaliation for French air raids against their positions over the past year.

France has called for a global coalition to defeat the extremists and has launched air strikes on Raqqa, the de-facto Islamic State capital in northern Syria, since the weekend. Russia has also targeted the city in retribution for the downing of a Russian airliner last month that killed 224.

The Russian air force on Wednesday carried out a “mass strike” on Islamic State positions around Syria, including Raqqa, Russian news agencies reported.

INTERNATIONAL COORDINATION

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their air strikes in Syria, but French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26 to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.

Two days before that, Hollande will meet in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the role of a U.S.-led coalition in any unified effort against Islamic State.

France is one of several European countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition’s strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, and two months ago became the only European country to join strikes in Syria as well.

Obama on Thursday reiterated the U.S. position that eradicating the group was tied up with ending the civil war in Syria, which could not happen as long as President Bashar al-Assad was in power.

“Bottom line is, I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power,” he told reporters in Manila on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

(Reporting and writing by Crispian Balmer, Andrew Callus and Ingrid Melander; Editing by John Irish and Peter Graff)

Two die in police raid targeting suspected Paris attack mastermind

By Antony Paone and Emmanuel Jarry

SAINT DENIS, France (Reuters) – A woman suicide bomber blew herself up and another militant died on Wednesday when police raided an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis seeking suspects in last week’s attacks in the French capital.

Three sources told Reuters the raid stopped a jihadist cell that had been planning an attack on Paris’s business district, La Defense, after coordinated bombings and shootings killed 129 across the city.

Officials said police had been hunting Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian Islamist militant accused of masterminding the Nov. 13 carnage, but more than nine hours after the launch of the pre-dawn raid it was still unclear if they had found him.

Seven people were arrested in the operation, which started with a barrage of gunfire, including three people who were pulled from the apartment, officials said.

“It is impossible to tell you who was arrested. We are in the process of verifying that. Everything will be done to determine who is who,” Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said at the end of the operation.

Molins said the assault was ordered after phone taps and surveillance operations led police to believe that Abaaoud might have been in St. Denis, near to the soccer stadium which was site of one of the attacks that hit Paris last week.

Investigators believe the attacks — the worst atrocity in France since World War Two — was set in motion from Syria, with Islamist cells in neighboring Belgium organizing the mayhem.

Local residents spoke of their fear and panic as the shooting started in St. Denis just before 4.30 a.m. (0330 GMT).

“We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake,” said Sabrine, a downstairs neighbor from the apartment that was raided.

She told Europe 1 radio that she heard the people above her talking to each other, running around and reloading their guns.

Another local, Sanoko Abdulai, said that as the operation gathered pace, a young woman detonated an explosion.

“She had a bomb, that’s for sure. The police didn’t kill her, she blew herself up…,” he told Reuters, without giving details. Three police officers and a passerby were injured in the assault. A police dog was also killed.

 

FLEEING RAQQA

Islamic State, which controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, saying they were in retaliation for French air raids against their positions over the past year.

France has called for a global coalition to defeat the radicals and has launched three large air strikes on Raqqa — the de-facto Islamic State capital in northern Syria.

Russia has also targeted the city in retribution for the downing of a Russian airliner last month that killed 224 people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Wednesday the bombardments have killed at least 33 Islamic State militants over the past three days.

Citing activists, the Observatory said Islamic State members and dozens of families of senior members had started fleeing Raqqa to relocate to Mosul in neighboring Iraq.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a man who was fingerprinted in Greece last month after arriving in the country via Turkey with a boatload of refugees fleeing the Syria war.

Police believe two men directly involved in the assault subsequently escaped, including Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is accused of having played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.

French authorities said on Wednesday they had identified all the Nov. 13 victims. They came from 17 different countries, many of them young people out enjoying themselves at bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a soccer stadium.

Until Wednesday morning, officials had said Abaaoud was in Syria. He grew up in Brussels, but media said he moved to Syria in 2014 to fight with Islamic State. Since then he has traveled back to Europe at least once and was involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium foiled by the police last January.

Two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters that the St. Denis cell was planning a fresh attack. “This new team was planning an attack on La Defense,” one source said, referring to a high-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris that is home to top banks and businesses.

A man in St. Denis told reporters that he had rented out the besieged apartment to two people last week.

“Someone asked me a favor, I did them a favor. Someone asked me to put two people up for three days and I did them a favor, it’s normal. I don’t know where they came from I don’t know anything,” the man told Reuters Television.

He was later arrested by police.

 

AIRCRAFT CARRIER

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their air strikes in Syria, but French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26 to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.

Hollande is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington two days before that to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State.

Obama said in Manila on Wednesday he wanted Moscow to shift its focus from propping up Syria’s government to fighting the group and would discuss that with Putin.

Russia is allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the West says he must go if there is to be a political solution to Syria’s prolonged civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Western nations had to drop their demands for Assad’s exit if they wanted to build a coalition against Islamic State.

But Hollande said countries should set aside their sometimes diverging national interests to battle their common foe.

“The international community must rally around that spirit. I know very well that each country doesn’t have the same interests,” he told an assembly of city mayors on Wednesday.

He confirmed that a French aircraft carrier group would set sail later in the day and head to the eastern Mediterranean to intensify the number of strikes on militant targets in Syria. Russia has said its navy will cooperate with this mission.

 

(Additional reporting by Andrew Callus, Matthias Blamont, Marine Pennetier, Emmanuel Jarry, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Chine Labbé, Svebor Kranjc, John Irish in Paris, Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, and Matt Spetalnick in Manila, Victoria Cavaliere and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Amran Abocar in Toronto and Dan Wallis in Denver; Writing by Alex Richardson and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Callus and Sonya Hepinstall)