NAIROBI, Kenya — In their most audacious attack yet, Islamic militants in northern Nigeria launched a pre-dawn raid on an air force base, showing their continued strength and ability to strike despite a six-month-long army offensive aimed at destroying the group.
Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters in pick-up trucks and at least one armored personnel carrier raided the air base in Maiduguri early Monday morning and attacked army posts in other parts of the town.
The assault began at around 3 a.m. with gunfire, explosions and shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and lasted until after dawn, leaving buildings razed to the ground and vehicles set on fire.
Two helicopters and three out-of-service planes were also destroyed, said Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade.
According to officials, only two military personnel were injured and 24 militants killed.
Nigeria’s military is well known for understating its losses and exaggerating its successes. Witnesses in Maiduguri described military ambulances loaded with corpses heading to the morgue from the air base, while elsewhere in town dead bodies were seen with their throats cut.
“Frankly speaking, if the insurgents had wanted, they could have killed all of us because they came in large numbers some with explosives, some with rocket-propelled grenades and some with AK-47 rifles,” a local government official told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
In response to the attack, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government imposed a 24-hour curfew on the town.
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A state of emergency has been in place in three northern states including Borno, of which Maiduguri is the capital, since May and mobile phone signals have been cut off.
That hundreds of well-armed Islamic fighters were able to launch attacks on military installations at the heart of the government’s counter-insurgency operation raises questions about the effectiveness of the military strategy and suggests Boko Haram remains a powerful and threatening force in both Nigeria and the wider region.
But with even talk of peace talks coming to nothing, the government seems to have few ideas for defeating or defusing the uprising.
Despite widespread corruption, especially in the large crude oil sector (a recent report said oil was being stolen on “an industrial scale” of 100,000 barrels every day), and deep chasms of inequality, the West African nation of 165 million people remains one of the continent’s economic powerhouses.
But it is a divided country with many of the splits lying along a north-south fault line of religion, resources, climate and culture.
The largely Christian south is hot, sweaty, exuberant and irreverent. It's the part of Nigeria where wealth is generated from the crude oil sucked out of the Niger Delta and where much of the country’s commerce happens.
By contrast, the largely Muslim north is dry, arid and conservative (Shariah law has been adopted by a dozen northern states), lacks valuable resources and has suffered decades of economic neglect.
Maiduguri was the birthplace in 2002 of Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language and which US military officials say has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia’s Al Shabaab.
The group’s founder Mohammed Yusuf built up a following among young Muslim men in northern Nigeria, where joblessness, neglect and official corruption mean many see little future. Yusuf was killed while in police custody in 2009 at the end of a bloody security crackdown in which hundreds of suspected Boko Haram supporters also died.
The militant group re-emerged under new leadership and since then has been blamed for the deaths of more than 4,000 people during a brutal campaign to enforce Taliban-style rule in the north. Human rights groups accuse both Boko Haram and the Nigerian army of abuses.
Human Rights Watch said Boko Haram has abducted women and girls and recruited child soldiers as young as 12, while Nigerian security have “rounded up and forcibly disappeared” hundreds of men and boys.
Attacks like the one on the Maiduguri air base are rare. It is more common for militants to target pubs and police stations, churches and sometimes mosques.
Attacks are often low-tech: gunmen on the back of motorbikes hurling grenades or firing assault rifles. Improvised car bombs and suicide attacks have also been used.
Boko Haram carried out the first known suicide bombing in Nigeria in 2011, targeting a United Nations headquarters building in the capital Abuja and killing at least 21 people.
In a sign of the growing threat that the US believes Boko Haram poses to regional stability and Western interests, Washington last month designated the group and its affiliate Ansaru as "foreign terrorist organizations."