A bloody uprising aimed at creating a Taliban-style state in Africa’s most populous nation appears to have been a rebellion by students who got money from family, not al-Qaida, officials and captive fighters told The Associated Press.
Security forces of Nigeria and neighboring Niger quashed the Afghan-inspired students’ offensive, which was led by an Islamic cleric. Even with the campaign defeated, and dozens of rebels dead, in jail or in hiding, the students are unrepentant.
“Policeman are agents who protect the ungodly,” 21-year-old student Mohammed told AP, sitting in police custody, his round face wrinkled in disgust. “We have a duty to follow Allah’s law, and show people the way.”
Mohammed, son of two former senior officials from a prominent family in the north, spoke on condition his last name not be used.
The two-week uprising, routed by Jan. 3, ended with at least two policemen and 16 others dead, mostly students — including 10 killed by Nigerian villagers and Niger security forces as the men tried to fight their way across the border after being defeated by Nigeria’s army and police.
Residents told AP they believe the death toll in the northern state of Yobe, scene of the uprising, was higher — around 50, with students making up most of the dead. At least 10,000 civilians in several towns fled the fighting, Yobe state emergency officials said.
At its height, students stripped three police stations of arms and ammunition and set the stations and other government buildings afire. Students used the looted AK-47s to battle police.
The uprising — which appalled most Muslims in northern Nigeria — came without warning, and virtually without precedent. Except for an Islamic uprising in northern Nigeria in the 1980s, Nigeria and West Africa as a whole have seen none of the kind of armed Islamic movements that have plagued other regions.
In West Africa, “there’s a brewing religious intolerance in some places, but it’s mostly fueled by political leaders. Most people left to their own devices aren’t becoming fundamentalists,” said Ross Herbert at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
“In West Africa, people have too many other problems to worry about fomenting global revolution,” he said.
Modeled on the Taliban, the movement emerged during four years of rising Muslim-Christian tensions inside Nigeria.
Religious violence — mostly sudden clashes between Muslim and Christian mobs — has killed thousands in Nigeria since 1999. In that year, Yobe and 11 other predominantly Islamic northern states began introducing Islamic law, or Shariah.
The students were followers of a Nigerian Islamic cleric known as Abu Umar, or Mullah Umar, students and Nigerian security agencies told AP.
Little is known about Umar except that he, like all his followers, is under age 30. He drew his flock largely from northern Islamic states, but also from the majority Christian southern states of Oyo, Osun and Lagos.
The students included children of top northern government officials, police said. The young men called themselves Al Sunna wal Jamma, Arabic loosely translated as Followers of the Prophet’s Teaching.
Leaving prosperous homes and university study, the students settled with Mullah Umar in a tent city on the banks of the Yobe River at the town of Kanamma.
At least 200 students lived there — roughly the same number as is believed to have taken part in the uprising, said Yobe state spokesman Ibrahim Jirgi. Security agencies say the group may secretly have had as many as 1,000 members, spread out in cells.
Authorities have found no links to Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban regime, al-Qaida or other outside groups — but haven’t ruled them out — a top security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Investigators do have one key question, the official said: Where, and how, did university students learn how to handle arms?
“We certainly know they received some weapons training, because they’re not taught sharp-shooting in school,” he said. “What we now want to know is who gave them the military training — are they Nigerians, or foreigners?”
Mohammed said a friend introduced him to Mullah Umar, when Mohammed was an economics student at Bayero University in the northern city of Kano.
“Umar saw my interest in the Koran and the Islamic way of life,” the jailed student said. “So he showed me portions of the Koran which says we should consider those who don’t follow Allah’s law as followers of Satan.”
The students’ simple adopted lifestyle required little money, and what they needed came from their families. Sons of well-off families could “collect money from their parents under any pretext,” Mohammed said.
Mohammed spoke to AP at police headquarters in Maiduguri, capital of northeastern Borno state. Troops captured him in a group of students Jan. 1, in an ambush outside the city.
Umar eluded arrest, and is being sought by authorities.
Under Mullah Umar, the group for two years limited itself to political activity — handing out leaflets critical of officials they saw as lax on Islamic law, for example.
Then, the sect began clashing with residents over fishing rights around their Yobe River camp.
Increasingly militant, students took over a primary school in Kanamma, hoisting a flag that labeled it “Afghanistan.”
Yobe state Gov. Abba Ibrahim said he was trying to persuade the students to disband when they launched their attacks.
The offensive failed, not only because security troops moved in, but because the rich students failed to connect with the area’s Muslims — 80 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day.
“They put Islam upside down,” said Ibrahim Tijjani, a Maiduguri-based Muslim cleric. “Violence is only justifiable in Islam when one’s religion, life, family or property is attacked — none of which happened in this case.”
AP reporter Dulue Mbachu in Lagos contributed to this report.