A 30-year-old says the group aims to shift focus from domestic targets because U.S. is "major aggressor against Muslims."
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Nigeria’s “Taliban,” named for their heroes in a far-off land, could provide willing recruits for attacks on American targets, one of the group’s leaders boasted in a rare interview that had the trappings of a spy novel.
With equal parts bluster and chilling resolve, the slight 30-year-old explained why the militant Islamic group that set up its own “Afghanistan” base in northern Nigeria wants to shift its focus from domestic targets.
“The U.S. is the major target because it’s the major aggressor against Muslims throughout the world,” said the young man, who wore a bottle-green caftan and gave his name only as Musa. “America is the main aggressor, and I believe all these attacks against America are divine worship.”
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The Nigerian Taliban have been regarded as bit players in the jostling field of Islamic extremism, unlikely to pose a threat to Europe and the Americas. This West African nation, however, came under renewed scrutiny after a young Nigerian man was arrested on suspicion of attempting to detonate explosives concealed in his underpants on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has no relationship with the Nigerian Taliban, but his arrest initially raised fear of al-Qaida activity in Africa’s most populous country.
Musa said the Nigerian Taliban identified with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but received ideological, not financial, support from them. (Family members say the group raised substantial funds by having followers sell “sinful” possessions: furniture, vehicles, even the tools of their trades.)
“The only assistance we have received is ideological. The ideology is coming from there,” said Musa, who was not specific on whether it was direct or indirect support. “As far as we are concerned, the best assistance we can get is ideology.”
Richard Moncrieff, West Africa analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, said that though the Nigerian Taliban had a domestic goal when first formed, the group could be drawn into global Islamist militancy.
The group “came from failings of the Nigerian state,” he said. “That’s its origin. It was not originally about international jihad. But the possibility of it, or bits of it, being turned toward international jihad is real,” Moncrieff said.
He also said there was a strong risk the group and its grievances could be picked up by groups wanting to make the conflict international and indoctrinate the rebels in the belief that Nigeria’s problems were part of a global clash between Christians and Muslims.
“There’s a potential for that in northern Nigeria. I think there’s a risk of it going that way.”
The group mounted major attacks in four northern Nigerian states in July but was soon crushed by security forces. When the fighting stopped, 700 people were believed to have been killed, including the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Human-rights groups say his killing appeared to be an execution by security forces, who said he was shot while escaping.
After that defeat, the group split into cells and went underground, adopting an al-Qaida-style structure that some fear will increase the likelihood of attacks.
The unemployment rate in northern Nigeria is high, and even educated people often are forced into menial work, creating a vast pool of angry, alienated potential recruits, said analyst Haruna Wakili, a professor at Bayero University in Kano who has studied the organization.
“They’re underground, they’re everywhere, in every northern state. And they’re armed,” he said.