Unidentified gunmen massacred at least two dozen university students in northern Nigeria Monday night in the city of Mubi near the border with Cameroon. The attacks lasted more than an hour, with gunmen targeting specific students by name rather than indiscriminately firing. Suspicion fell immediately on Boko Haram, a violent Islamist organization in northern Nigeria that has typically attacked Christian churches and security forces. Student leaders, meanwhile, suggested that the killings may have been tied to internal student political campaigns. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Aside from Boko Haram's history of bloody attacks on civilians, the very name of the group – which means "Western education is a sin" – stokes suspicion of their involvement. But even if the group is found to be involved, the purpose of such an attack would not be part of some global jihad.
"I cringe at the 'Western education is a sin' [translation] – there should be a modifier there. It's really Western education in Nigeria. There's a tendency to view this issue as a little wider than it is," says Gordon Bottomley, an associate at Ergo, a New York-based intelligence and advisory firm.
Boko Haram leaders associate Western education with the elites of northern Nigeria, whom the militants see as corrupt and insufficiently Islamic, says Mr. Bottomley. Boko Haram wants northern elites, politicians, and religious figures to adopt a stricter version of sharia law and maintain the north's identity as an Islamic region in a Christian-majority country.
"Western education encroached upon Muslim rule in northern Nigeria, so that’s the push back on it," says Mr. Bottomley. "They [Boko Haram] are not taking up the broader issue of education around the world."
The group remains shadowy, with the identity of the movement still in flux. The leadership of the group is believed to be educated, says Bottomley, but mostly in Quranic schools in Nigeria, not in Western institutions.
The core followers of the group, including its leadership, may only number a couple hundred people, he says. Around that core are other militants whose interests may overlap, as well as another wider group of sympathizers who are not actively involved in attacks. When attacks are pinned on Boko Haram, it's not always clear how much – if at all – the leadership was involved. To the extent they are deciding on targets, the shifting attacks from churches, to security forces, to newspaper offices over the past six months, suggests the process is "done from the hip," Bottomley says.
Details of the attack
The state police spokesman, Ibrahim Mohammed, said the dead included 19 students from a local polytechnic university, three from a health technology school, a former soldier, and a security guard. The attack took place around 11 p.m. at night Monday and lasted for more than one hour in the suburb of Mubi called Wuro-fatuji, where student housing is located.
“Unidentified gunmen ... invaded an off-campus residence of the students and called out the names of their victims from a hit list whom were thereafter executed, one after the other. We have yet to blame anybody but investigation will reveal this soon," Mr. Mohammed said.
An official with Federal Polytechnic Mubi, a local university, says that 26 students of the institution were among those massacred in the attacks, stating that the sporadic shooting kept residents of Mubi awake all night as many scampered for safety.
A student of the Polytechnic, Ambrose Adam, blamed the attack on an internal fight between the two contenders of the Student Union Government election held over the weekend at the institute whereby two candidates of different religions emerged. The northern candidate, a Muslim, won the election with the support of northerners, while southerners voted for the candidate from the south, a Christian.
Mr. Adam says he believes the attacks were related to the tension between the two student campaigns and their supporters. “[T]here were tribal and religious differences which have taken shape during the student elections, some were not happy with the outcome of the result, but I expect the police will come out with the genuine details,” says Adam.
The killing of the students in their off campus residence came barely a week after Nigerian security forces known as the JTF uncovered bomb factories and arrested 156 suspected terrorists in Mubi. Other items recovered from the raid, code named "Operation Restore Sanity,” were improvised explosive devices, chemicals, arms, and ammunition, over 500 dagger knives, 9 AK-47 assault rifles, locally made pistols, and rocket launchers.
“Based on intelligence report, a combined team of the JTF isolated the area, cordoned it, and made sure that innocent and law abiding citizens were not hurt,” Brigadier General Nwaoga stated.
The police also said a 24-hour curfew had been imposed in the area after the security operation, which was relaxed to 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.. This perhaps provided an opening for the terrorists to unleash mayhem on Monday night.
* Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Boston.