Hunting Boko Haram

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Evan Williams

EVAN WILLIAMS, Correspondent: [voice-over] Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. For the past five years, it’s been fighting a brutal Islamist insurgency. The radical group Boko Haram has been trying to impose an Islamic state. Their name means “Western influence is sinful.”

BOKO HARAM LEADER: Secular education, sport and music. Secular education, sport and music! As a result of this today, many Muslims lose their Islam.

EVAN WILLIAMS: In almost daily attacks, Boko Haram has been beheading police officers, setting off bombs and killing school children.

SHEHU SANI, Nigeria Civil Rights Congress: They burn schools like the Taliban. They kill government officials and attack military and police locations like the Taliban. They see themselves as the Taliban of Nigeria.

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EVAN WILLIAMS: Last April, the group shocked the world by kidnapping nearly 300 school girls.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. Secretary of State: The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I arrived here this past May just after a double car bombing by Boko Haram in the city of Jos.

[on camera] Going towards the center of Jos, where just yesterday, there was two vehicle explosions killing about 118 people, injuring many more. This has now been determined as a Boko Haram attack. The whole town has now been emptied, and there’s a very eerie feeling.

[ More on reporting the story]

[voice-over] Jos’s main hospital was filled with victims from the bombing. In one room, I found this woman. She had been riding in a taxi when the explosion tore through the vehicle. She told me the two people sitting next to her were killed instantly.

MARIBEL: Every day, every hour, people lose their loved one. Every day, it’s getting worse. Every day. I don’t know what they want. They are just terrorists.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [on camera] What goes through your mind when you remember what happened?

MARIBEL: When it happened, I thought I’m going to die, but by God’s will, I survived. God is still with us. God will protect us.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [voice-over] In the face of these attacks, the Nigerian military launched an all-out war against the group two years ago. It was called Operation Flush.

A state of emergency was declared in the country’s three northern states. Thousands of troops were sent in to operate alongside local militias made up of young Muslim men who feared Boko Haram.

SHEHU SANI: These are young men that have the knowledge of the northeastern part of Nigeria. So now the military can have someone by proxy carrying out their activities without them being held responsible.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, hailed the militias as national heroes. But soon after I started investigating Boko Haram, I began hearing stories about these militias, atrocities some of them were committing, along with members of the military, as they carried out Operation Flush.

I talked to witnesses and militia members, who described arrests, torture and even the summary execution of civilians. And as proof, they game me over 120 videos. Many of them they shot themselves. I independently corroborated these videos with multiple eyewitnesses, militia members and human rights experts.

[on camera] We’ve managed to track down an insider who has agreed to speak to us but only in a safe location.

[voice-over] He belongs to one of the militias and asked to be called Abdul. He gave me 35 videos.

ABDUL: [through interpreter] We only have one life. God has given us the same as he’s given them. So we thought, why not just confront them? We either kill them or they kill us.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He said members of the military trained some of them and even paid some of them directly.

ABDUL: [through interpreter] They took us and trained us for four weeks. They formed us so that we could be their boys and said they’d support us in our operation.

EVAN WILLIAMS: They armed themselves with whatever weapons they could find — machetes, swords, bows and arrows — and were encouraged to deal harshly with Boko Haram suspects wherever they went.

MILITIA MEMBERS: [subtitles] Hey, you big guys in the car. You, I want an ear to be cut off. And you, a tongue.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Initially, he said, they had some success capturing Boko Haram members, but then Abdul started to grow uncomfortable with their methods. He showed me a video he says he filmed during an Operation Flush mission in the city of Maiduguri in July 2013.

His militia had gone through the countryside capturing villagers suspected of supporting Boko Haram. The suspects were turned over to the military.

ABDUL: [through interpreter] We all turned into monsters, as you can see.


SOLDIER: There’s no bailing out. Take the cloth off his face. Mother [expletive deleted]

SOLDIER: Is he dead?

SOLDIER: He is not dead.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Abdul said people were beaten to try to get them to confess they were Boko Haram.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Put him in the water.

EVAN WILLIAMS: One young man was singled out by the soldiers.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Is he pretending to be dead?

EVAN WILLIAMS: [on camera] Why are they beating that man?

ABDUL: [through interpreter] Because he refused to admit he’s Boko Haram.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He was alarmed by what happened next.

ABDUL: [through interpreter] They said, “We don’t trust you.” You are Boko Haram, since you have this strong head.” They were beating him, beating him, beating him. He’s just a young boy. They boy is not Boko Haram. He’s not Boko Haram. Even people living in the area testified that he’s not Boko Haram.

His parents were there and they tried to stop it, but they couldn’t. In the end, they just had to turn away.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Abdul says he later found out the boy died of his injuries.

Soon after that raid, they moved into the town of Bama. Three weeks earlier, it had been attacked by Boko Haram. The group had threatened to kill teachers and government workers if they didn’t leave their jobs.

MOHAMMED: [through interpreter] Boko Haram has been killing people for a long time, burning shops, police stations, barracks, and killing people. They kill anybody who refuses to work with them.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I met another member of the militia, who asked to be called Mohammed, and also gave me videos. He was there that day, and he proudly told me how they violently extracted confessions from young men they’d rounded up.

MOHAMMED: [through interpreter] We tie their hands and legs and place them in the sun. We beat them with a stick until they scream. Then they tell us everything. If he has killed someone or has a gun, he will tell us. He will tell us if he is Boko Haram. He will tell us everything. Because there were many of them, we stripped them and our boys screened them. We scare them. Otherwise, they would not tell the truth.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I found a witness, a local school teacher, who said he looked on in horror as more and more of the town’s young men were accused of being terrorists, even though he’d seen the Boko Haram fighters fleeing before the military arrived.

TEACHER: All the Boko Haram that I know, they had already escaped and left that locality. They ran into the bush. They don’t want the military to kill them. They won’t have any reason to prove that these are Boko Haram because they didn’t see them with gun, they didn’t see them participating with Boko Haram. At that time, any young man, they just tell that he’s Boko Haram.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I showed the teacher video of that day, as he watched the footage, he spotted someone he knew.

TEACHER: This is Mohammed Bello, Bello Mohammed. On that day, he went to the market. He’s a very kind gentle guy.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [on camera] And was he connected to Boko Haram?

TEACHER: No, he wasn’t connected to Boko Haram. When he heard a Boko Haram attack, he is even crying.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [voice-over] Dozens of young men like Mohammed Bello were loaded onto an army truck, and the militia celebrated their success. Two days later, people began finding the bodies of the men who’d been taken away on the outskirts of town.

TEACHER: We started searching for our neighbor’s boys and others. We saw two, three, two, three bodies, who are just laid along the streets in different locations. Some of them were shot at the head, some of them were shot at the rib side, some of them at the chest.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Around 35 men were killed, he says, including Mohammed Bello. The teacher found his bullet-ridden body lying in a ditch.

TEACHER: At the moment I saw the body, I felt like it could happen to me because all of them are innocent. We, too, also, we are innocent. Maybe next time when they come, they will shoot us.


1st MAN IN STREET: They took them away.

2nd MAN IN STREET: Are they going to kill them or what?

1st MAN IN STREET: Of course, yes.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He told me some people are so scared of the military and the militias, they’re joining Boko Haram.

TEACHER: If they found even a single Boko Haram, they will burn the village. They will kill the majority of youths in the village. And as a result of this, the next village will volunteer and move into Boko Haram. This is the reason why the Boko Haram is increasing day in, day out.

[ The rise of Boko Haram]

1st WOMAN: [subtitles] Boko Haram carry out atrocities. But then soldiers come and take our innocent men. We will not support either of them. They both cheat us. Only God will support us.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I met these women, who are from a town that’s been repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram. As far back as two years ago, the military has been conducting sweeps there, too.

2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] Soldiers came to our house at dawn and took my husband away. They knocked on the door and ordered everybody to come out. When they took my husband, they told him he’d be back soon, but he never returned. It’s now been two years and four months.

EVAN WILLIAMS: The women went to the local army barracks, thinking that their husbands and relatives were being held there.

3rd WOMAN: [subtitles] The soldier said if we didn’t go away, he’d shoot us. So we turned and left. Nobody helped. Nobody offered to help. Wherever you go, soldiers insult you. They call you “mother of Boko Haram.”

EVAN WILLIAMS: [on camera] The army says that they’ve arrested people because they’re members of Boko Haram. Were your brothers ever members of Boko Haram, any connection or support of Boko Haram?

4th WOMAN: [subtitles] No, they are not Boko Haram. Honestly, they were not Boko Haram. They’re both college students. Our father is dead, and they are my mother’s only caretakers.

EVAN WILLIAMS: How many other women do you know are in your situation?

5th WOMAN: [subtitles] Only Allah knows the number of people. But there are a lot. For some, it’s one or two relatives. For others, it’s the entire family.

6th WOMAN: [subtitles] We’re in a dire situation. It’s affected almost everyone around here.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [voice-over] I wanted to interview someone in the Nigerian military or government about the allegations, but they wouldn’t agree to it. In several statements, they’ve said collateral damage could occur in the fight against the insurgents, but they denied human rights violations and noted that Boko Haram has impersonated soldiers before.

[ Read the government’s statements]

But some of the same incidents seen in these videos prompted Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2013 to say the U.S. had concerns about, quote, “credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations.”


MAN ON THE GROUND: Untie me. Untie me.

MILITIAMAN: I will cut off your ears if you don’t keep quiet.

MAN ON THE GROUND: I am not Boko Haram. I was just passing by when they stopped and arrested me.

JOHN CAMPBELL, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, 2004-07: I think, obviously, the U.S. would like to have a closer relationship with the Nigerian authorities straight across the board, including the military.

MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] He’s Boko Haram. Beat him. He’ll say it.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I showed several of the videos to Ambassador Campbell.

JOHN CAMPBELL: What the videos do is they show in an extraordinarily graphic way what we had been hearing from a variety of sources over the past couple of years.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He’s been following Boko Haram and the allegations against the Nigerian military.

JOHN CAMPBELL: The people detained are not formally charged. They’re not brought before a magistrate. They appear to be selected for detention in a more or less random way. Government security services must be held to a much higher standard than a brutal insurgency, a much higher standard.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Many of those detained are brought to the army’s Giwa barracks, a sprawling military complex in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. This man told me he’d held at the barracks for four months last year.

SURVIVOR: [through interpreter] After we got to Giwa barracks, they said, “Welcome to your death house.” From the time we were taken to Giwa barracks to the time we were out, no one investigated or asked us any questions as to why we were there, whether we were Boko Haram or whether we knew Boko Haram. We were just kept in Giwa barracks. There were no questions or answers, nothing.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He said he was released after his father paid a bribe. Others were not so lucky.

SURVIVOR: [through interpreter] In the night, they call people’s names. And if they answer they are taken, blindfolded and shot.

EVAN WILLIAMS: He estimates there were about 120 men taken to Giwa barracks with him. He knows of only 9 who came out alive. He told me the bodies of dead prisoners were loaded on to military vehicles and driven away. Pictures I received were taken outside the city morgue by people who told me the bodies had come from Giwa barracks. One of the photos was taken by a human rights investigator from Amnesty International.

MAKMID KAMARA, Amnesty International: Hundreds of people, some even say thousands of people, have been detained in Giwa military barracks and have gone through various forms of ill treatment. People die of starvation. They die of beatings, the lack of proper ventilation, which leads to suffocation— these are the various causes that lead to people dying in military custody.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Abdul, the young militiaman, said it was his job to unload the corpses from military vehicles and dump them in front of the morgue.

[on camera] How many corpses in a week, say, you were offloading—

ABDUL: [through interpreter] The vehicle takes 24, 25 bodies in a trip. They come 4 or 5 times a day. So every day, they were bringing 100, 120-something.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [voice-over] And then one day, Abdul unloaded a body he recognized, a close friend who’d been taken away to Giwa barracks, a friend he knew was not a member of Boko Haram.

ABDUL: [through interpreter] Why would they kill him without having strong evidence? Where was the person that said he was a Boko Haram member? I said, this is a false allegation. I put his corpse to one side. I cried and cried and cried.

EVAN WILLIAMS: The Nigerian military has publicly denied that there’ve been mass deaths in detention, but local human rights investigators and the U.S. State Department told me the number could be several thousand.

SHEHU SANI, Nigeria Civil Rights Congress: There are families that have not seen their loved ones, there are women who have not seen their husbands for the past three to four years. No one, not even the state, the country or government as a whole, have a comprehensive list of people that have disappeared or people that are currently in detention.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Last March, with Giwa barracks filling up, Boko Haram filmed themselves raiding the barracks and freeing hundreds of prisoners. But very few went with Boko Haram. Eyewitnesses say most appeared to be civilians who ran for their homes. But they didn’t get very far.

I found a man who says he watched the prison break and saw the militia rounding people up.

WITNESS: [through interpreter] They were looking for something to eat or drink. One was begging for water with his hands. All of them were crying, saying they were not Boko Haram. Two soldiers came either side and asked people to move away, and “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop!” They shot them all.

EVAN WILLIAMS: One of the terrified men called out to him.

WITNESS: [through interpreter] He told me, “This is the end of my life because these people will not spare me, they will kill me.” He had seen the other dead bodies. He was alive. We were together. But in just a few seconds, somebody came and shot him.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Militia members and people standing in the streets filmed the executions on their cellphones. The videos match the accounts of several eyewitnesses. Bodies were left bleeding in the streets, with spent cartridges around them. Some of the victims appear to be children.


1st MAN: Is this all from today?

2nd MAN: Yes.

1st MAN: From today?

2nd MAN: Yes, they are the ones. Some of them escaped.

EVAN WILLIAMS: No one knows the death toll for certain, but Amnesty International estimates that more than 600 people died that day. And the killing didn’t stop there. The military hunted other escaped prisoners down on the outskirts of town.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Lie down. Get in the hole. Stop wasting time. You sit there.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I received two horrific videos that show what happened next, the bodies of what witnesses say are Giwa detainees being thrown into a pit by soldiers. One carries a rifle with the number of a battalion that’s part of Operation Flush. The soldier who appears to be in charge wears a uniform marked with the name Operation Flush. I was told that the soldier goes by the name Haruna, or Harrison.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Slaughter him, sir. That’s what they’ve been doing to us. Slaughter him, sir. Slaughter him, sir. Finish him. Die hard, commando!

EVAN WILLIAMS: Of all of the videos I’ve obtained, these are the most graphic. They show him presiding over six executions. All the prisoners have their throats slashed, with a line of men behind him awaiting their turn.

SHEHU SANI: It has reached a point where people couldn’t even clearly draw a line between the wanton violence and evil unleashed by the insurgents and the acts of brutality committed by the security forces against innocent persons.

EVAN WILLIAMS: In August, the Nigerian military said it would investigate who was behind the executions in these two videos. But as of now, it’s unclear what the response will be to the many other incidents we’ve reported on.

[Last week, Boko Haram captured and held multiple towns in the north and declared an Islamic state. More than 200 of the kidnapped school girls are still being held.]

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