It was no accident that Boko Haram picked the town of Baga to attack last week in Nigeria’s northeast, routing the military and torching the fishing community. The town’s strong vigilante groups may have made it a target.
The violence this past week in Baga was astounding, even for Boko Haram, which has been fighting Nigeria’s government for more than five years to establish strict Sharia law in the country’s northeast.
Local politicians and residents said hundreds, if not thousands of people were killed last week during the Baga raid. The group attacked the nearby base of the Multinational Joint Task Force, a group of soldiers from Nigeria and neighboring countries.
Baga has been the scene of several violent incidents during the insurgency. As the threat of Boko Haram increased, vigilante groups known as the Civilian Joint Task Force formed in the region.
They were successful in keeping the town safe from Boko Haram insurgents, says freelance journalist and security analyst Alkasim Abdulkadir.
“In the last one year, we have seen a very, very strong civilian JTF, a very, very strong vigilante go off of Baga, who have assisted in ensuring insurgent attacks were brought to a minimum. So I think it was a time for the insurgents to really shoot back at this vigilante who have really grown very strong in this particular area,” he said.
Abdulkadir said Boko Haram adopted a scorched earth tactic in Baga specifically to undermine the military’s ability to retake the town.
“It makes it less strategic, it makes it less of an issue for the army to fight back if there is nothing to go back to there. Because for example the MNJTF brigade is under the insurgents at the moment. There are no assets, either militarily or civilian assets in Baga at the moment,” he said.
Baga is not the only town with a civilian Joint Task Force presence. In November, Boko Haram raided the town of Damasak, killing 50 people in what locals say was retaliation against the town’s vigilante group.
Abdulkadir said there were signs Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was planning a wider campaign against the vigilantes.
“They actually fear the civilian JTF more than the army. From the [statements] of Abubakar Shekau that we have monitored, there seems to be a vehement hatred against members of the civilian JTF. So I think there are going to be further attacks on the civilian JTF anywhere they might be. It is going to be an ongoing trend,” he said.
The attack on Baga forced 7,000 people to flee to neighboring Chad. Hundreds more fled to the state capital, Maiduguri.