LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Extremists from three neighboring countries are fighting in Nigeria's northeastern Islamic uprising, according to an alleged captured extremist whose account reinforces fears that one of Africa's most powerful Islamic militant groups is growing closer to al-Qaida affiliates and that radical movements are spilling across national boundaries.
"We do have members from Chad, Niger and Cameroon who actively participate in most of our attacks," said a young man presented to journalists Friday night by Nigeria's military as a captured fighter of the Boko Haram terrorist network.
The claim of foreign fighters indicates the growing influence of Boko Haram, which started out as a machete-wielding gang and that now wages war with armored cars, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices in its mission to force all of Nigeria — Africa's largest oil producer and a country of 160 million that has almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims — to become an Islamic state.
Boko Haram poses the biggest security threat in years to the cohesion of Nigeria, already riven by sectarian, tribal and regional divisions that often explode into bloodletting, amid power struggles ahead of elections in 2015 that likely will be contested by the current president, a fundamentalist Christian.
A harsh military crackdown in three northeastern states covering one-sixth of the country since mid-May has forced Boko Haram out of major cities and towns, but the security forces appear unable to prevent regular extremist attacks on soft targets like school pupils in which hundreds have been killed in recent months.
President Goodluck Jonathan's government, which is struggling to control the Islamic rebellion, for the first time presented an alleged Boko Haram fighter, a 22-year-old walking on crutches because of a bullet wound suffered when he was captured in a recent attack.
The young man refused to give his name, for fear that his family would be targeted. His account sheds new light on life inside the shadowy Boko Haram, which means "western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language.
The captured extremist member said religion did not figure in his life as a Nigerian Islamic warrior, insisting his leaders "had never once preached Islam to us." He said the name of Allah was invoked only when "we are running out of food supply in the bush. Our leaders will assemble us and declare that we would be embarking on a mission for God and Islam."
He added: "I did not see any act of religion in there. We are just killing people, stealing and suffering in the bush." Recently Boko Haram has carried out brutal attacks on mainly Muslim civilians. The new assaults "offer vital and disturbing insights" that "not only confirm many of the group's earlier developments but also al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's, or AQIM's, growing influence over it," Jonathan Hill, senior lecturer at the Defence Studies Department of King's College, London, wrote in an analysis published online this month at africanarguments.org.
"These atrocities bear many striking similarities to those carried out by AQIM and its various forbears in Algeria," wrote Hill, who is the author of "Nigeria Since Independence: Forever Fragile?" He noted that "despite the extraordinary efforts of the security forces, Boko Haram appears unbowed and its campaign undimmed."
Earlier this week, Justice Minister Mohammed Adoke charged that Boko Haram is being influenced from abroad. "Nigeria is experiencing the impact of externally-induced internal security challenges, manifesting in the activities of militant insurgents," he said while defending the country's record at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Adoke did not give any details of the alleged external influences. Boko Haram fighters, including current leader Abubakar Shekau, were reported fighting alongside al-Qaida affiliated groups that seized northern Mali last year. The movement has also boasted that it has fighters trained in Somalia by al-Shabab — the group that claimed responsibility for the most spectacular terrorist attack in Africa in recent years that killed at least 67 at Kenya's upscale Westgate Mall last month.
Boko Haram has long been known to be receiving funding from abroad. Founding father Mohammed Yusuf was receiving funds from Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia back in the 1990s, according to Hill. Saudi Arabia, despite its status as a Western ally, for decades has been exporting to West and East Africa its Wahabi brand of purist Islam that, beyond the Middle Eastern kingdom's borders, has been taken to extremes.
Niger and Chad both have said they fear infiltration by Boko Haram. Boko Haram members from Nigeria and neighboring Niger were arrested in December in Cameroon, according to a report from Jacob Zenn, an analyst for The Jamestown Foundation and author of the report "Northern Nigeria's Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda's Africa Strategy." He quoted the imam of a grand mosque in southern Senegal as claiming that Boko Haram was recruiting local youths there in August 2012.
In a report written in January, before the military crackdown, Zenn said international collaboration between Boko Haram and militants in northern Mali, the Sahel, Somalia and other countries in the Muslim world have allowed Boko Haram to grow into an organization that "has now matched — and even exceeded — the capabilities of some al-Qaida affiliates."
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.