Boko Haram is one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world. In Nigeria, Die Welt reporter Christian Putsch got unprecedented access to the group’s former leaders, who describe unlikely beginnings and a litany of atrocities – and now fear for their lives.
MAIDUGURI — The man who is jointly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and who has terrorized millions more for years, now fears for his own life. He can't rest, he says: Knowing there is a bounty on his head keeps this former terrorist from sleeping.
Mallam Bana Musaid spends the nights in prayer. The former No. 4 man in the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is deaf in his right ear, after surviving a grenade attack. With his left ear, he listens intently to the sounds outside his tent in the dark camp, where he has been undergoing deradicalization for the past six months.
Have the hundreds of others in this government-run camp on the outskirts of the city of Maiduguri really all renounced the terror group, like him? Or is someone planning to kill him?
Boko Haram has offered a bounty of 6 million naira (around $13,000) to anyone who can provide a photo of his dead body, and his mobile phone. The group made the announcement after Musaid issued a call over the radio and on social media for the remaining terrorists to lay down their weapons. With that, the former terrorist became a traitor in their eyes, and a target.
Koranic school to TikTok posts
For 15 years, Boko Haram has been trying to use bombs to establish a caliphate – an independent Islamic theocracy based on a brutal interpretation of religious law – in northeastern Nigeria. Terrorists like Musaid have killed at least 35,000 people in the name of this cause. Some of them were opponents of the caliphate, but the majority were random victims. A further 314,000 people have died from indirect effects of the conflict, including failed harvests and drought. It is one of the most brutal death tolls of any jihadist group worldwide.
Despite an enormous military effort, Boko Haram has been weakened but not fully defeated. Nigeria has turned to a different approach: a comprehensive and controversial amnesty program, which promises most of the leaders that they won’t face prison. Musaid took advantage of the amnesty, alongside thousands of others who left the terrorist group.
It is afternoon, and the former terrorist is ready for our first meeting, during which he will tell us, in greater detail than anyone has given before, about the inner workings of Boko Haram.
He stands outside the camp in Maiduguri, a city of over a million people. The soldiers let him out today, which they have never done before. He is a slight man, dressed, like most men here, in a shadda and a traditional rawaram cap. His face is without lines. His grey beard is the only sign that he is 52 years old. The Islamist, who was head of the justice department in Boko Haram’s caliphate and ordered hundreds of executions, could hardly look more unassuming.
One factor in his radicalization was the long-running conflict in the north of the country.
A middleman arranged for us to hold this interview in a backyard. We are not allowed to speak during the journey. Musaid looks at TikTok posts from BBC News on his phone. When we turn into the yard, Musaid wants to stay in the car and talk there. He's interested in talking about his radicalization, the looting, abductions, amputations and money, but also about his growing doubts about Boko Haram, and about how he, a former cosmetics salesman, became a mass murderer – and how the mass murderer now wants to become a salesman again.
As a child, Musaid attended a strict, conservative Koran school, and later was one of the first followers of Boko Haram’s founder, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf. One factor in his radicalization was the long-running conflict in the north of the country: Nigerian courts enforce national laws, but in this part of the country, there is also a parallel system of Islamic law, and some of the population wants religious law to take precedence.
There were deaths in the first clashes between Islamist activists and the security forces. This escalation, alongside the government’s decades-long economic neglect of the region, led to more people joining Boko Haram.
Residents of Ngarannam village, a village located in the state of Borno in north-eastern Nigeria, which was under the rule of the terrorist organization Boko Haram.
Visit from ISIS
The terrorists bought their first weapons in neighboring Chad, looting police and military bases to expand their arsenal. Village after village came under the group’s control, and in 2015 the 12,000-strong Islamist army occupied an area the size of Belgium.
Boko Haram’s looting of villages went unpunished.
Musaid was in charge of much of the justice system under Boko Haram, as he was the link between Boko Haram’s sharia courts and the group’s leader at the time, Abubakar Shekau. He had to bring every death sentence to the leader for approval, and his presentation of the case would determine whether Shekau offered a pardon.
Of course, Boko Haram’s looting of villages went unpunished. Fighters did not receive a wage, so instead they were allowed to keep some of what was stolen. Musaid says that he first began to have doubts when he saw widespread crimes being committed against civilians.
But he carried on. As head of Boko Haram’s justice department, he had an annual budget of around $1.5 million at his disposal. Farmers had to pay a tenth of their income, while Fulani herders had to give around $2 per cow. Added to that was the money from the Islamic State (ISIS).
In 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to the then-leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Both men had already discussed a possible visit by al-Baghdadi to the Nigerian caliphate, Musaid says. He says they had also planned to create a network of terrorist militias in Africa.
Even al-Baghdadi thought that Boko Haram’s killings were too arbitrary, and he called for greater restraint. Shekau refused, and cut ties with ISIS over the years.
Musaid says the group had no foreign fighters. But money continued to pour in, via a system that was even more complex than it was previously understood to be. Musaid says payments were made to Nigerian businesspeople in Libya: The goods purchased with this money were then legally exported to Nigeria, and the proceeds ended up in bank accounts belonging to Boko Haram’s leaders.
Schoolgirls sitting in Camp Bulumkutu during Foreign Minister Baerbock and Minister of State Keul's visit to the camp. Former fighters of the terrorist group Boko Haram and their wives and children are implemented there.
Musaid was also involved in the abduction of more than 260 Christian schoolgirls from the city of Chibok in 2014. He organized 17 vehicles to be used as transport. The crime sparked outrage across the world. “We wanted to force the government to close all schools," he says.
Boko Haram translates as “Western education is a sin.” As well as moderate imams, soldiers and police officers, teachers have been one of the group's most common targets.
As time went by, Musaid’s doubts turned into concrete plans to flee the group. Today, he says the movement has “developed in a different direction from what we originally planned." He speaks of “many atrocities," which he no longer wanted to be a part of. “No religion can flourish without peace,” he says. One can’t help but wonder why he took so long to come to this view, if it is truly what he believes.
One factor may be that it wasn’t until the years-long negotiations to free the Chibok girls that the groundwork for the amnesty program was laid, as the contacts established during the negotiations led to the first discussions about amnesty. But another factor is that in the last few years Nigeria’s air force, supported by the U.S., has intensified its campaign against the group.
I heard the explosion and knew what it meant.
In 2016, there was a split within Boko Haram, and offshoot Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) started fighting the weakened Shekau faction, to which Musaid belonged. Two years ago, Shekau died after detonating a suicide bomb when he was surrounded by ISWAP forces.
“I heard the explosion and knew what it meant,” says Musaid. Up until then, none of his 19 children had been killed. But the terrorist knew that would soon change. When, instead of bombs, the air force dropped leaflets with information about the amnesty program, he grasped them “with both hands.” He says that since then, he has led thousands of Boko Haram fighters “out of the bush."
In total, around 6,000 active Islamists have turned themselves in. Musaid believes that there are still around 6,000 more. No one knows exactly what the true number is, but many observers believe it may be fewer. There are around 2,000 in ISWAP, and only a few have left the group, which is responsible for the majority of attacks now taking place, and has been celebrated in ISIS propaganda.
Two women looking over a wall in Ngarannam village, located in the state of Borno in north-eastern Nigeria, which was under the rule of the terrorist organization Boko Haram.
“I have a compassionate heart”
It is getting dark, and Musaid is getting nervous, as he does every evening. He wants to go back inside the camp. As we part ways, he says we can talk more in a few days. That's enough time to ask around about others in the Amnesty Program. Mallam Adamu Rugurugu, another apparently reformed terrorist, says he is prepared to talk to us.
I don’t want to kill.
The car drives into the backyard again. Rugurugu says he was also radicalized under Yusuf. He was below Musaid in the hierarchy, but this flower salesman from Gwoza, who also worked as an imam on the side, became an Islamist with 300 fighters under his command.
Unlike Musaid, Rugurugu, 43, was directly involved in many attacks on villages, looting and killings. He doesn’t deny that some of his people did “bad things,” although he claims that he only ever shot into the air. “I have a compassionate, friendly heart and I don’t want to kill,” he claims – words that must ring hollow in the ears of his victims' families.
He describes the group's international financing and proceeds from imported products, adding that the money came from Iraq and Pakistan. Most of the group’s income came from abductions and from looting banks, businesses and houses. Many people in the villages kept their savings in cash. “In one house, we found 20 million naira,” says Rugurugu – over $43,000.
It wasn’t until 2019, when one of his children died from malaria due to a shortage of medicine, and rumors about the expansion of the Nigerian government’s amnesty program became more concrete, that he started to think about leaving. But Rugurugu waited another two years. In his time with Boko Haram, he personally ordered the executions of 10 of his fighters. The death penalty was standard for deserters, carried out on the spot. “Once you’re in the bush, there is no going back,” he says.
One evening he called his family together. His eldest sons had already been active fighters for some time. As they were leaving under cover of darkness, they crossed paths with an Islamist. Rugurugu shot him in the head, without hesitation. “The gunshot didn’t make anyone suspicious,” he says. “There were always skirmishes with the army.” He estimates the number of remaining fighters as “between 2,000 and 3,000,” far fewer than Musaid's estimate. “Shekau’s people are almost all gone.”
For two years now, he has been living in Maiduguri. His remorse is not entirely believable, even though he lectures us for several minutes about the importance of peace. What does he think about sharia law? He says he recognizes the authority of the state – but he adds that he is still in favor of a strict application of Islamic law. He says “every Muslim” knows that the punishment for stealing set out in the Koran is cutting off a hand for the first offense, and a foot for the second.
In Maiduguri, which was terrorized by Boko Haram for so many years, there is some opposition to the terrorists. But Rugurugu tells us that, after spending a few months in a deradicalization camp, he has now moved into a normal neighborhood, and that his new neighbors are convinced his remorse is genuine.
As an imam, he has already started preaching at weddings and funerals again.