The Anatomy Of A Terror Attack In Northwest Nigeria

  • Reconstructing a typical terrorist attack based on interviews with dozens of victims across three states in the region.

It all started 11 years ago, or six, or maybe more recently — depending on what community you are from and how soon they got to you. Before that, you had not grown accustomed to the explosive sound of gunshots and life was generally peaceful. You had been hearing of how they brutally attacked neighbouring villages or Local Government Areas (LGAs) and had hoped the violence would not spread towards where you call home. But it did.

They arrive at night, on motorcycles, from behind the trees and river. They constantly shoot into the air. People who run towards the forest are chased. They hit them with their bikes and gun them down. Sometimes they ask them to lay on the ground, point their assault rifles next to their heads, and open fire.

Yahaya Saidu shows a picture of his brother, Isiaku, who was shot in the head and had his skull break open from the bullet’s impact. Isiaku had two wives and 12 children before his death. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle

They enter people’s homes, sometimes having to break down the doors. And then they take what they can, including money, livestock, and other belongings. They seize whatever foodstuff they can lay their hands on and set fire to silos. Sometimes, they ask the residents to catch, slaughter, and cook their chickens. And then they eat while the owners watch. If the residents have tuwo and fura, they will eat and drink those to their fill too.

Uncooperative house owners may lose their lives. Many are, in fact, killed — often the male residents. Some are survived by as many as three to four wives and plenty of children. A lot of the dependants eventually take to alms begging.

My son was the one who ran and informed the villagers to run and hide. When they got to him, they killed him. He had seven children. I won’t ever forget it. He used to be our main provider.

Aisha Sani, Tangaran, Anka LGA, Zamfara

The shooting is nonstop. If it is close to the Muslim prayer time and people are still in the mosque, they may visit and kill some of the worshippers. And the terrorists burn down structures, including the community dispensary. 

If the plan is to abduct residents, they oftentimes target houses with relatively wealthy occupants. Maybe there is a car parked outside or the building is bigger and finer compared to others or they had received information from residents spying for them. If the heads of the households escape, they abduct their children or loved ones in their place.

The terrorists, described locally as bandits, then proceed to stores, ransack them, and take the available cash. They also loot valuables such as prepaid calling cards and foodstuff. They search people and take their phones and, occasionally, their clothes as well.

These bandits enter all the towns, house by house. If you have even a shirt or trouser that is new, they will take it away. If you prepared food, they will take it and go.

Isiaka Abdullahi, Kurawa, Sabon Birni LGA, Sokoto.

Sometimes, the attacks are preceded by a phone call during which the terrorists would warn that, unless they are given millions of naira, they would storm the communities. These calls, in the early days, were dismissed as propaganda by the people.

On occasion, the terrorists attack and leave without taking anything but the lives of innocent people. Policemen, responding to a distress call or on patrol, are killed too — that is if there is any assigned to the community at all. The following morning, empty bullet shells litter the compounds and the streets. You sometimes find buildings scarred by bullet holes.

The attackers come at night, but they do not follow a rigid timetable. Other times, they strike in broad daylight. The attacks are sporadic and unpredictable. If, during the afternoon, there is a cry of ‘approaching bandits’, everyone scampers for safety: children, pregnant women, old people. Schools immediately shut down for the day.

You are not sure whether you will be able to catch some sleep or it will be another night in a long line of tragedies. Even on days when there are no attacks, locals tend to have sleepless nights. This is worsened by the startling gunshots. People go to bed uncertain if they will see the next sunrise.

During an attack, the people call Nigeria’s security agencies for help, but it seldom comes when it is needed. The police may say they are not around town and are in the bush for an operation, or complain about a lack of arms and ammunition. Many hours later, they will show up and start asking questions. Other times, according to victims, the police may be metres away from the community under siege but will refuse to act still.


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