The Hunt for Boko Haram: On the Trail of the Killers Tearing Nigeria Apart

Boko Haram bombing site
The bombing site on the Central market, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, 24th May 2014. Benedicte Kurzen/Noor Images for Newsweek

It's several weeks since the Islamist militants of Boko Haram kidnapped an entire girls' school in northeastern Nigeria and the general wants me to see what he's up against. He invites me to his office in the capital, Abuja, and opens his laptop.

The general clicks on one folder titled "Abubakar Shekau". A first clip shows the future leader of Boko Haram in his years as a preacher, in a white cap and white babban riga, the traditional Nigerian pyjama, tunic and cape. A second is more recent, from 2013, and shows Shekau in a clearing in the scrub looking far bulkier, in full combat camouflage.

The next clip shows Shekau's former number two, Abu Sa'ad, a few months before his death in August 2013. He is giving a speech to his men on the eve of an attack last year on an army barracks in Bama, a town on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. The fighters, who appear to be mostly teenagers, grin shyly at the camera. Abu Sa'ad says the attack has been long planned and that most of its architects are dead.

"You should look for victory or martyrdom, which is victory in the eyes of God," he says. "A martyr knows he is going to die, knows there are enemies, but goes to the battlefield anyway without fear of death because he loves God and he knows God will smile on him."

The attack begins at dawn. Hundreds of Abu Sa'ad's men are strolling through the bush. They begin firing. When they start receiving return fire, they do not change pace or even look for cover. They keep walking almost casually into the fusillade. Bullets whistle over the cameraman's head. "Allahu Akbar!" he shouts, over and over. "Allahu Akbar!"

All around, fighters are being cut down. Ten make it to the base fence and take cover behind a toilet block. The cameraman films one shouting back at his comrades: "Stop firing from behind," the man yells. "You're hitting us."

Suddenly the camera goes down on its side. "They've killed me," says a voice. The general whistles. "I've never seen anything like it," he says. "Just walking into death."

He opens another video. This time, Abu Sa'ad is standing in front of the black and white flags of al-Qaida, surrounded by 20 boys, all in headscarves, all carrying a gun. The boys look as young as four. The heads of the smallest just reach Abu Sa'ad's waist. "You must wage war," he tells them, his hands resting on the boys' heads. "You must perform every violent act you can."

"Allahu Akbar!" cry the boys. Abu Sa'ad turns to the camera. "You can kill us," he says, "but these children will continue. Children are the future."

The general finds another clip. Two men in the black uniform of the Nigerian police are on their knees in the bush in front of a black and white banner held up by two militants, which reads in Arabic: "There is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet." Abu Sa'ad stands to one side, holding a book.

The cameraman asks the two policemen to speak. The first gives his name as Corporal Mehmud Daba. "I know mine has ended," he says. "My legacy is to ask my wife to please bring up our children in Islam. Let my mother hear this and pay all my debts for me."

The second policeman says his name is Sergeant David Hoya, a Christian. He does not raise his head but mumbles into the ground.

"What is your message for your wife?" asked the cameraman.

"That she should take care of my -children."

"In Islam or as unbelievers?"

"I'm not an unbeliever," says Hoya.

"How can they see you if your face is down like that?" asks the cameraman. "Lift your face up!"

The camera turns to Abu Sa'ad. "I want to give an explanation for what we are about to do," he says. "We are punishing in terms of what Allah prescribes. I want to tell Nigeria and the world that we give them the gift of these two policemen, this sergeant and corporal. We want to give these men the judgment of Allah."

Abu Sa'ad lifts up a book he is holding. "I am going to read from this book," he says, showing the cover to the camera. It is an interpretation of the Kitab Tawheed, the Book of Unification, written by a conservative 13th-century Saudi Islamist scholar called Sheikh Abdur-Rahman bin Hasan al Ash Sheikh.

He begins a long monologue, showing the pages as he quotes from them. "We are going to do things in accordance with the book," he repeats. "We will do this to anybody we catch. In Kano, we entered the police headquarters and we killed them as they shat themselves. We did the same in Damaturu and Maiduguri. Let the world know that we will never compare anyone to God. No government, no constitution, can compare to God."

Ten minutes later, Abu Sa'ad finishes. "Let's thank God and give him more bodies," he concludes. He then pulls a knife from his combat vest, grabs Daba and lays him on his side. The crowd starts cheering: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!"

Two men hold Dada's chest and legs. Abu Sa'ad holds his head with one hand. He starts sawing at Daba's throat with the other. Blood jets onto the sandy ground. Abu Sa'ad keeps sawing. He can't get through the neck bone. He switches to the back of the neck and starts sawing again. Still the head won't come off. Abu Sa'ad drops the knife and twists Dada's head around with both hands, trying to snap it off. It doesn't work. He picks up the knife and saws again.

Finally, after half a minute, Dada's head comes free. Abu Sa'ad lifts it up by the hair, shows it to the crowd. The eyes are closed. Flesh and ligaments are hanging loose. Abu Sa'ad places the head on the body.

Then he moves over to David Hoya, whom his men are already holding in place. This time Abu Sa'ad works ferociously. He takes Hoya's head off in half the time. I say nothing. The general is silent, too. He clicks on another video. A woman is being held on the ground, next to a newly dug grave. "I didn't pass on any information," she says. "I didn't tell anyone anything."

"Allahu Akbar," says the cameraman.

The men set to work. The woman shrieks, then goes silent. Her head is off in 15 seconds. The men try to arrange it on her body but can't seem to balance it. They try propping it on her hair. Eventually one man loses patience and punts her head sharply into the grave. The others shove her body in afterwards.

The general clicks on another clip. This time it's a young boy. I tell the general I can't take any more and he freezes the frame. We sit there, the two of us, silent for a while. Finally the general says: "We found over 200 graves like this in the area. All beheaded. A lot of them were young boys."

Two car bombs detonated 10 minutes apart in the city of Jos on May 20, killing over 100 hundred people. Victims of the bombing were hospitalized at the Plateau Hospital, May 24. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR


An African desert city of 10 million, Kano is built around a 1,000-year-old caravanserai, where for 50 generations Arabia has met Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara.

Tradition runs deep. Together with thousands of northern notables, Lagos-based French photographer Benedicte Kurzen and I have been invited to a "turbanning" at the emir's palace, where Kano's 83-year-old monarch, Alhaji Dr Ado Abdullahi Bayero, will ennoble five men. At the palace gates, stallions with ornate silver-studded face-plates and saddles stitched in brightly coloured leather stand ready to parade the new nobles around the city.

The courtyard beyond is a vast, sweaty tapestry of thousands of men dressed in babban riga of 100 different colours. Their turbans are lace, cotton and silk, flecked with black and gold. They wear embroidered leather slippers from Timbuktu, Mombasa and Peshawar. In a small hall beyond, sitting on the floor against one wall, is a line of men in especially elaborate dress, the last of whom is barely visible beneath a giant black silk puff-ball decorated with red and silver polka dots. His face is hidden: his eyes are behind sunglasses and his head and chin are wrapped in a black, red and gold turban tied in an elaborate top knot that resembles the ears of a Playboy bunny. The man underneath rises to his feet and removes his sunglasses. His face is neat and small and his hair close-cropped.

"You made it!" he exclaims in the Queen's English. The man extends his hand. "Lamido Sanusi." We shake hands and Sanusi gestures at the crowd. "Quite the show, eh?" he says.

Alone among Nigeria's leaders, Sanusi transcends the identities that trap and divide so many others. He is a Muslim royal, the heir apparent to the emirate of Kano, but as a boy attended a Catholic prep school. He studied economics and worked for Citibank on Wall Street but also read Islamic Law and Greek philosophy in Khartoum at a time when Osama bin Laden was also resident.

Sanusi is a scion of the Nigerian establishment, but for the past five years he has been the scourge of that establishment, in his role as governor of the -Central Bank of Nigeria.

"I removed bankers from their jobs, I fought the national assembly over their pay, I put a captain of industry in jail, I said half the civil service should be fired, I said the petroleum minister was leasing her own private planes to the government, paying herself every time she took a flight," he says.

Finally, last September, Sanusi told President Goodluck Jonathan that around $20 billion was missing from Nigeria's national oil accounts. When the allegation was leaked a few months later, Jonathan suspended him. "He took it personally," says Sanusi. "Basically, I have no friends left in Abuja."

As it turns out, days later Sanusi is elevated to a post even better suited to goading the government. A week after performing the ennobling, the emir dies in his sleep and Sanusi, his great-nephew, succeeds him. His accession makes him king of one of the most influential fiefdoms in northern Nigeria. He has, in effect, become chief-government-critic, for life.

Victims of the bombing at the Plateau Hospital, Jos, Plateau State, Nigerian, May 24. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR

Even before his accession, Sanusi is speaking out about the abduction of close to 300 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, a day's drive east from Kano. In the weeks since they disappeared, northern Nigeria has become a bloodbath. Almost 1,000 people have been killed since the girls were taken, making more than 3,000 this year. More or less every day, it seems, Boko Haram is massacring another village, slaughtering people and burning their huts to the ground. The attacks are often reprisals for the assistance the villagers have provided to Nigeria's army, either in the form of intelligence or self-defence groups made up of village hunters.

Further afield, hundreds more Nigerians have died in a series of bomb attacks on the country's cities, including in a twin blast in the city of Jos, which killed 130, another twin bombing in Abuja which killed close to 100, a third on June 25 which killed at least 21 and another in Kano, which killed five in the street outside our guesthouse.

Though Nigeria's latest civil war has already lasted five years and cost 12,000 lives, the Chibok abductions and subsequent protests by the girls' parents outside government offices in Abuja have drawn global attention. Among those moved to demand #BringBackOurGirls have been Jesse Jackson, Angelina Jolie, the Iranian government, the Coca-Cola company and the prime minister of Nepal. Pakistani schoolgirl and Taliban attack survivor Malala Yousafzai has called the girls "her sisters". Michelle Obama commandeered her husband's weekly address to tell Americans: "In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters." The US, Britain, Israel and China have offered drones, spy planes and advisors to assist Nigeria's government in the girls' recovery. French president Francois Hollande has hosted a Paris summit for Jonathan and four other Western African leaders. The head of the Anglican church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who once lived in Nigeria, has flown to Abuja to pray with Jonathan.

None of this has done anything to bring the girls home.

Girls leaving school, in Kano, Kano State, Nigeria, May 24, 2014. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR

On the contrary, as Boko Haram responds to the attention by stepping up its attacks, including two more mass kidnappings near Chibok, #BringBackOurGirls is having to confront an awkward suspicion: that by "raising awareness," the campaigners may have given Boko Haram precisely the global profile it wanted. Moreover, the campaigners' narrative is beginning to feel forced. The idea that this is an issue of girls' education and militant Muslim repression of women is given lie by the revelation that the girls' gender may actually have saved their lives. In raids on mixed schools, Boko Haram slit the throats of all the boys.

Still, says Sanusi, the campaign has had its uses. "What I like about the attention is that we're now moving beyond these superficial analyses," he says. "Now people are asking the real questions. It has exposed the incompetence and corruption of the government. People are coming to see how Boko Haram are killing people, and walking away, and the army is doing nothing about it."

The key question, says Sanusi, is whether a government crippled by ineptitude and greed is even capable of addressing the deprivation it has allowed in northern Nigeria and the ferocious rebellion that it has spawned. Or whether, just as it celebrates its 100th year by surpassing South Africa as the biggest economy in a surging Africa, Nigeria is disintegrating.

"A state fails when its leadership fails," says Sanusi. "Personally I am not very optimistic. Our citizens are left on their own to perform the functions of the state. I think we have all the symptoms of a failing state."

I tell Sanusi I first started coming to Nigeria eight years ago but that even now, sometimes after weeks on the ground, I often leave feeling as unsure as when I arrived. He smiles. To understand Nigeria, he says, you must throw away notions like certainty and consensus. Instead you have to accept you are entering a world where all truth is relative, all fact is transient and what seems to be the most visceral and bloody reality can ultimately be revealed as artifice.

"It's about power," says Sanusi. "Power, and the construction of truth."

Street scene in Kano, Nigeria, May 24. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR


Nigeria is a creation of colonial expediency. Exactly 100 years ago, its British rulers fused two of their existing West African protectorates, southern and northern, each of which already contained several kingdoms, scores of languages and more than 250 tribes. The amalgamation of this vast and diverse territory was overseen by Lord Frederick Lugard, who justified the unifying of Britain's Nigerian possessions under the "hinterland principle".

"By this dictum," wrote Lugard in The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, "a power in occupation of coast lands was entitled to claim the exclusive right to exercise political influence for an indefinite distance inland".

It never occurred to Lugard to consult his subjects on their impending union. They were, after all, little more than "attractive children" with minds "nearer to the animal world" than other humans. Early in his career, Lugard had been posted to northern Nigeria and his time there had left him with a lasting admiration for the northern dynasties. By contrast, he despised the "Europeanised African" he found in the south who, he wrote, was less fertile, had worse teeth and was prone to lung problems.

A united Nigeria, then, was a fiction founded on colonial convenience and prejudice. The idea might have been expected to die at independence. But by the time freedom arrived in 1960, the concept was ingrained in government structures and many southerners had developed a customary deference towards northerners. Accordingly, the northern elite dominated the Nigerian independent government and its army from the outset. It was more than three decades before a southerner became president.

The discovery of Africa's biggest oil reserves in the southern delta in the 1950s exacerbated the problem. The northern-dominated state quickly developed a habit of reserving for itself the billions of dollars that began flowing into Nigeria from foreign oil companies. So immense were these revenues, which still account for 80–85% of all government income today, that they allowed Nigeria's rulers to create lives, as detached from their countrymen as the offshore rigs that sustained them.

Foreign business effectively replaced Nigerians as the government's constituents and the Nigerian state served them rather than the people, whose domestic taxes were negligible by comparison. Likewise, since the people did not pay for their government, they had few ways to make it accountable.

In 2007, Nigeria's own anti-corruption watchdog estimated that its rulers stole $300 billion in oil revenues between 1960 and 1999. More cash was leaving Nigeria for foreign banks than all the foreign aid being sent in the reverse direction to Africa.

This record-breaking corruption made oil a curse rather than a blessing. The rewards of power ensured that the state was consumed by an intense and endless power struggle. Nigeria's first coup was carried out by a group of Igbo majors in January 1966. A northern counter-putsch followed in July and there were nine more coups or attempted coups between 1975 and 1996. Democracy was revived in 1999 but in rigged form.

Plastic pots for the ablutions Muslim practice before prayer for sale at a market in Kano, Kano State, Nigeria, May 24. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR

Over time, lower levels of the Nigerian state learned to take their lead from their political masters. Government teachers played truant for years at a time. Government doctors required patients to pay a bribe before they were treated. Bureaucrats purchased their positions, and then set about earning the money back by charging for permissions and other paperwork. Customs officers saw their job not as taxing imports but taking a cut. For policemen, the roadblock became a favoured bribe extraction point.

Most jarringly, the state petroleum authority, which collected more than $40 billion a year from foreign oil companies, ignored Nigeria's oil refining capacity. Today, Britain's biggest export to Nigeria is refined petrol and diesel, much of it originally Nigerian crude. Every few months Nigerian importers throttle the supply to hike prices – and Africa's largest oil producer grinds to a halt as fuel stations run dry.

This vacuum in the state leaves a hole where Nigeria's national heart should be. Public interest is replaced by self--interest. Left to fend for themselves, Nigerians retreat to their sectarian identities, to the delight of communal politicians who stoke division further. Trust is experienced mostly in the negative: in the firm belief that everyone is out to con everyone else. When crime equates to money, and money to status, and status to everything, all shame evaporates.

In a nation of a million conspiracies, Boko Haram is viewed alternately as a creation of northern power brokers, or the presidency, or even the CIA. The army is whispered to be coordinating troop movements to leave villages like Chibok undefended, or ferrying in supplies to the militants, or even shipping in Delta militants as reinforcements. Shekau is in Saudi Arabia. Shekau is a guest of the government in Abuja. Shekau is dead. Prejudice, rumour and suspicion rule; certainty and knowledge are lost. This, to borrow a phrase, is how things fall apart.

Quilox nightclub on Victoria Island, Lagos, the latest hub for Lagosian elite party crowd, promotes luxury, champagne, and high-end products; these are some of the things Boko Haram points to as Western corruptions. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR


The drive from Lagos to Jos passes from dirty coastal swamps, to thick forest, wide river valleys and finally lush flatlands planted with yams, maize and small forests of giant mango trees. Out of the fields rise colossal single-boulder mountains of smooth dark granite, as though the skin of the earth had been peeled back to reveal the bone beneath, and left to bake black in the sun.

If Nigeria does disintegrate, it's a fair bet that the rupture will start in Jos. The southern half of the city is mostly Christian, the northern half mostly Muslim. Though the two sides have lived together for hundreds of years, both still describe the Christians as indigenous and Muslims as incomers. Christians accuse Nigeria's many Muslim rulers of -ripping off the country. Muslims complain of being marginalised in Jos – excluded from government jobs and schools and services and budgets. These communal grievances, and attempts to protect turf, find a focus at elections, which are often violent.

Every few years Jos explodes. Mobs from one side run wild through neighbourhoods belonging to the other, bombing churches and mosques, wrecking businesses and schools, and slaughtering families in their homes.

Days before we arrive, two car bombs detonate 10 minutes apart in the city's central market. Around 130 people were killed, possibly more; body parts were thrown hundreds of metres in every direction and rescuers have found it impossible to put them back together. Sadeeq Hong, a 30-year-old former journalist, has agreed to show us around. We take a three-wheeled taxi to the market, duck under the yellow police tape and walk in.

Where thousands of people crowded around hundreds of stalls, there is now an empty double-lane highway, nearly a kilometre long. Every few metres there are the ashes of fire. We find the site of the second bomb: a small crater in the road, a foot deep and wide. Some 75m away is the hole made by the first bomb, twice as deep and the size and rectangular shape of a small car. A policeman with a surgical mask draped around his neck walks up. "The bodies were on the roof," he says, pointing to a two-storey building a block away. "Pieces, pieces, pieces," he says. "The women . . . it cut their neck and throw the head down. We pick them. Pick, pick, pick."

I look to where the officer is pointing: a wall perhaps a metre from the blast has ceased to exist, blown back to its stumps. Towering television aerials, 20 metres high, have been bent back by the force of the explosion. Next to them is a palm tree. Three bras – maroon, white and beige – hang from a frond. The policeman kicks at the rubble absently. "The people who do this expect something from God," he says.

"What do they know of God?" snaps Hong.

Some in Nigeria might understand what fuels Boko Haram's anger--a lack of opportunity, government corruption, a fear of the West--but don't condone their violence. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR

After putting out the fires and removing the bodies and limbs, the clean-up team brought in bulldozers. The pile of detritus they pushed together is the height of a man: 10 metres long and wide. It seems incredible, bigger even than the market that created it. How stacked were the stalls? How packed was the market? Tight enough to absorb a bomb, I realise. I can't see a single shrapnel hole in the buildings around us.

Hong and I pick our way around the smouldering mess. Here are the remains of a bag stall. Here was a shoe stall. A pile of mattresses have fused together in the heat. Next to them is a stack of kitchen flooring, melted like wax. Here was a DVD stall. I can see covers for Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The blast has exposed a second, hidden business: there is porn everywhere. "Indian professional prostitute extremely happy red beautiful women," reads one cover.

"There was a boy selling these," says the policeman, watching me sift through the boxes. "He was killed." The officer makes an arc through the air with his hand, high and wide, tracing the trajectory of the boy's corpse.

Hong says the days since the blast have been nervous. "They were out on the street straight away," he says of Jos' Christian militias. "They want to kill, maim and destroy." He takes me to Plateau hospital, where some of the injured are being treated. A list of 35 names has been pasted to the wall next to the entrance. There are both Christian and Muslim names here. "Goodness -Chimedu; Joy Christopher; Patience Daladi; Mohammed Bashir; Umar Yusuf; Hadiza Ajiji."

One name, Elizabeth Musa, -suggests a mixed family. We find her wrapped in bloody bandages and surrounded by relatives on a ward. One of her eyes is obscured with a patch, the other swollen closed. She looks unconscious but when Hong says a few words of introduction, she sits straight up and starts talking all of a tumble, swaying alarmingly, as though she might fall out of bed.

"Boh!" she says, throwing her arms up. "Ra opposite me! Boh! And I can na see anything. Ma eyes are forever blind. De luggage from de luggage stall just fall on ma head. I ma covered. I said: 'Oh help me! Oh help me! Oh help me!'"

The women in the room begin to sway and murmur. "Oh!" they say. "Mmmm-huh!"

"Oh help me!" repeats Elizabeth. "I can na move ma head. I see maself going down, down, down."

"Mmmm-huh," say the women.

"People were moving around," says Musa. "I was shoutin'. Shoutin'! But dey could na find me under de luggage." Eventually she heard two men approach. "Dey said: "Let's go, let's go.' And dey carry me."

Musa is 50. She sells rice and beans in the market. She is a Christian, but her husband is Muslim.

The bombers, I think, have found their target. Musa's religious mongrelism is an affront to the purity they demand.

Hong asks the men and women in the room if the government is following up on its promise to pay for the bomb victims' treatment. "We payin'," says one man. "We see nuthin' from government."

I ask have Hong to introduce me to figures on either side of the divide – community leaders, and militiamen – mostly unemployed graduates in their 20s. All sides describe Nigeria as effectively two countries, north and south, Muslim and Christian, with Jos straddling the border.

Nanzing John, a 28-year-old business studies graduate and Christian militia leader, seems almost to be looking forward to the day the country falls apart. "The north contributes nothing to the economy of the nation," he says. "They are only parasites. I feel let them just go. Them be there and we be here. With this segregation, they cannot come between us and plant bombs."

Both sides also agree it is state failure that makes vigilantes necessary. Abandoned by an indifferent and incompetent government, Nigerians have been forced to proffer their own services, setting up their own private schools, employing private security guards, plugging in their own electricity generators and digging their own water boreholes.

"The government has totally failed in its responsibilities to the people," says Muslim militia leader Litty Omar, 32. "In Nigeria, the people are on their own."

Back at the guesthouse, the evening news is on the television, showing a portly man in uniform with gold and scarlet brass on his shoulders. It is the chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh, strolling through the scene of the attacks. A reporter shoves a microphone in his face. The Air Chief Marshall smiles. The security services are like a well-trained goalkeeper, he says. They save many goals but let one in and the whole team blames them. He beams at his metaphor.

Inside a Sharia court, in Kano, Kano State, Nigerian, May 26. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR


Just after 10.30am on August 26th, 2011, Mohammed Abul Barra drove right up to the gates of United Nations House in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, before anyone noticed him, ramming his grey Honda Accord station wagon through two security gates and crashing into the building's glass lobby. Finally halted by a low wall, the car bounced back on its wheels. The dozen or so UN staff and security guards in the lobby froze. One guard, regaining his composure, walked up to the car and peered in. Another onlooker appeared to see something, grabbed the man next to him and started running. After waiting a full 12 seconds, Barra leant forward.

Flying bits of car and glass shredded most people in the lobby to a bloody pulp. The rest of the 24 dead and 115 wounded had few visible injury marks. Instead their insides were crushed by a blast wave so big that it crumpled a water tower 100 metres away as if it were cardboard.

When I met Nigeria's then National Security Advisor, General Andrew Owoeye Azazi, a few weeks later, he was effusive about the professionalism of the attack. "They did thorough surveillance, they knew the weaknesses of the gates and the material was very volatile, very specialised," he said. "This was not just a local guy from Maiduguri." What Azazi meant was: this was al-Qaida. President Jonathan took a similar line. This was "just like other terrorist attacks in the world," he said. It was Nigeria's bad luck that it had become the latest battlefield in this global war.

The trouble was, as Azazi and -Jonathan well knew, Mohammed Abdul Barra was just a local guy from Maiduguri. Within days he was identified as a 27-year-old mechanic and father-of-one from Nigeria's northeastern most city. A month after the attack, the French news agency AFP was sent a video of Barra taken immediately before the attack. In it, Barra was shown holding an AK, but awkwardly, initially by the barrel, then folding it in the crook of his arm like a baby. As he talked, he smiled shyly at the camera and spoke so softly that the microphone hardly picked up his words.

"I'm going to shed my blood," he said. "I am going there now. God willing, and I pray to Allah to make me steadfast. May he take me there safely." Two men then embraced him. He beamed and nearly knocked heads with the second man. He looked like a boy setting off for camp.

The attacks on the UN building in Abuja were Boko Haram's first against a non-Nigerian target and suggested the group might have international -ambitions.

I flew to Maiduguri a few weeks later. The statistics showed the city was about as close to the bottom as a human being could be in the 21st century. More than three quarters of the population lived in absolute poverty. Just 3.6% of children were vaccinated against disease. Only one in five children went to school. The average girl managed three weeks of school in her lifetime. Unsurprisingly, the residents had long ago figured they had very little to lose.

In the 1970s, a group of imams from a sect called the Izala blossomed in Maiduguri's deprivation, preaching a purist morality in life and politics and denouncing the greed and corruption of Nigeria's rulers. By 2005, a young preacher called Mohammed Yusuf, who said he had studied in Saudi Arabia, was beginning to steal the Izala mantle. Why bother with Western-style education, Yusuf would ask in his sermons, when there were no jobs even for graduates? Hadn't money and oil given them a government that stole from its people?

Yusuf advocated going back to a purer, Luddite age, before "so-called education, democracy and rule of law". Yusuf called his group Jamaatu Ahlisunnah Lidawati wal Jihad, (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad). It soon became better known by the nickname given it by Nigeria's journalists: Boko Haram, which translates loosely as "books are blasphemous" or "Western education is forbidden".

By all accounts Yusuf was a great speaker. Many of his ideas, however, were half-baked or inauthentic imports. He denounced such godless modern ideas as evolution, the roundness of the earth and even the evaporation of water. He set up a camp known as "Afghanistan" to instruct volunteers for his revolution against the evils of progress. Copying images of the Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen, his followers began wearing the South Asian kurta pyjama and asking their women to wear the full veil.

The spark for violence came in late July 2009, when police officers watching a Boko Haram funeral procession saw some mourners riding motorbikes without helmets. In Maiduguri, helmets had become a point of contention. The security services insisted on them. Boko Haram resisted, since wearing one required a man to remove his traditional Islamic cap. The police watched the helmetless funeral cortège pass, then they attacked. The mourners retaliated. Three people died. Riots erupted. A few days later, the army surrounded Yusuf's compound in Maiduguri, arrested him, then executed him. A bloodbath ensued. By nightfall on July 29th, barely 36 hours later, around 1,000 people were dead.

The killings briefly halted Boko Haram's rise. But within a year it was operating as a 5,000-strong rebellion across northern Nigeria that threatened to split the country in two. The -rebels gave no quarter. They slaughtered whole columns of Nigerian soldiers, cleaved their way through Christian congregations with machetes, cut down moderate Muslim families as they left Friday prayers and staged coordinated attacks that wiped out small villages and devastated cities such as Kano and Damaturu. The UN bombing in Abuja bombing was one of several climaxes in this bloodletting.

Nigeria's army and police responded with equal cruelty, raiding villages and towns and rounding up young men, executing them – even gutting them – and dumping hundreds of bodies in trenches and mass graves. In Maiduguri I met a group of elders. One had a video on his cell phone of 20 uniformed Nigerian soldiers using truncheons and whips to beat a crowd of young men, stripped and on their knees, in Maiduguri's market.

"They do this daily," he said. "They can just take you and shoot you. Whenever there is a bomb blast, they just call the youth and shoot some of them." One time, he said, they shot an entire wedding party of 20 people. "Does a young man need any other reason to rise up after this?"

Bodies are not counted in a dirty war. By now, the dead are estimated at around 13,000, though nobody can be sure, even to the nearest few thousand. Terence McCulley, who was the US ambassador to Nigeria in 2011, said then that several hundred Boko men had travelled to Mali for bomb-making and propaganda training by al-Qaida's West Africa branch, al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM).

General Azazi said they had reached out to other militants in Somalia and Yemen. In 2011, the then commander of US forces in Africa, General Carter Ham, warned of the emergence of a pan-African al-Qaida merging Boko Haram, AQIM and al-Shabab in Somalia that had "very explicitly and publicly voiced intent to target Westerners and the US." Security types began referring to the Sahel region as "Africanistan".

In Maiduguri, Nigeria's army enthusiastically backed this alarming analysis. When I asked the base spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Ifijeh Mohammed, whether he saw Boko Haram as local militants or international terrorists, the colonel was clear. "Here they call it Boko Haram, but Boko Haram is totally al-Qaida," he said. "The name does not matter. The characteristics are the same. All the terrorists are in one group. They have one activity, one [way of] thinking. Al-Qaida has no boundary. There are perfect links. It's exactly the same as al-Qaida."

The truth was that Boko Haram was, as the colonel initially described them before I mentioned global terrorism, "a bunch of nobodies from the countryside". Their concerns were local: they hated the Christian president and they hated the state government in Maiduguri even more. Boko Haram's fighters wanted to be left alone in the purity of their poverty by an outside world that had long ago left them behind – but by taking up arms, they had forced the -government to try to stop them.

Men praying at the Muslim cemetery where victims of a bombing were buried in Jos, Plateau State, Nigerian. Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR


More than two months after the Chibok kidnappings, the mystery over the girls' fate has only deepened. For 19 days, the Nigerian government appeared not to even notice the abductions. Once the world began to pay attention, it initially claimed the girls had already been set free.

President Jonathan, who had previously accused unnamed northern enemies of being behind Boko Haram, said al-Qaida was to blame. Then his wife Patience accused the girls' parents of inventing the whole affair to embarrass her husband, had one of the #BringBackOurGirls protest organisers arrested, told people not to criticise Jonathan since his presidency was the work of God, and to press her point, went on live television and evoked God's presence, wailing "There is God-o!" over and over again.

Meanwhile, Shekau appeared in one video release saying he would marry off the girls or sell them as slaves, and then a second in which he said more than 100 of the girls had converted to Islam from Christianity. Scattered reports have since located the girls in Sambisa, a remote, roadless area of dry scrub close to Chibok, or scattered to different areas in Nigeria and across the border in Chad and Cameroon. By their own efforts, more than 50 girls have also escaped. Other reports suggest Boko Haram may be holding hundreds more.

The general who showed me the Boko Haram videos insists the majority of the security services are good men earnestly battling to save Nigeria. But he also admits that, yes, some officers sell weapons and equipment to Boko Haram, yes, some political leaders back the militants and, yes, the effectiveness of both army and government is crippled as a result.

"One bad apple can drag the whole country down," says the general. "I'm convinced there is no greater threat to Nigeria in its 100 years of history."

This year, weeks before he was forced out of the central bank, the new Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, unveiled a legacy that has the potential to transform Nigeria. On February 14th, he inaugurated a biometric database for the entire Nigerian economy, the first of its kind in the world. After registering their fingerprints, Nigerians would be able to withdraw cash from ATMs or pay for goods at checkouts or gas stations or shops simply by presenting their finger to a reader. The system would be almost impossible to defraud. Businesses, too, would be able to see if their customer has a history of bad credit or crime.

Should the database be rolled out across Nigeria, the space for crime – for forgery, fraud, bribery and money laundering – will shrink dramatically. Cash, especially suitcases of it, will become suspect. With an indelible imprint at the heart of Nigerian life, the database will also finally give Nigerians what they have lacked since their nation was founded: their own immutable and individual identity.

Sanusi sees the database in almost mystical terms: as an attempt to pierce the mysteries of money and power in Nigeria with facts, figures and records. "It closes off opportunities for opacity and brings more clarity," he says. "It will be revolutionary."

It's the most hopeful I've heard him. But when pressed, he grows more cautious. The database could be mothballed, he says. His other reforms could be undone. Most importantly, there is no sign of the Nigerian state, government or military, climbing out of the hole of venality into which it has plunged the country.

"The institutions are not working," he says. "So the state just does what it wants, perpetuating itself in power using their monopoly on money and the army. It's Louis XIV. 'L'etat, c'est moi.' Effectively, it's a monarchy."

Sanusi predicts Nigerians will be searching for answers to the most fundamental questions for years. Who are they? Where are they headed? Who will protect them? It's a recipe for frustration, and more violence. Some, like Boko Haram, will respond with bloodthirsty absolutism, and while the brutality is appalling, it's important to understand from whom Boko Haram learnt their behaviour. "You have to make the connection between the $1m shopping sprees and the maternal death rate in Nigeria, the child death rate, the low life expectancy, the malnutrition. That money could save people; this is murder. Worse, the people taking all the money are the people entrusted with protecting those lives. They were voted in by the same people they are killing."

This callousness is why Sanusi is pessimistic. He expects the state to apply the same ruthlessness to anyone – Boko Haram, the Chibok girls' parents or the Emir of Kano – who threatens it. "If you want to fight them, come out and be ready to fight to the end," he says. "There is no guarantee that because you do the right thing, you will have your freedom. These guys do not take any prisoners. You might end up jobless, impoverished or dead. The history of the world is that when you tell people in power what they do not want to hear, they will destroy you."

It's out of concern for his security, says Sanusi, that he prefers to stay in Kano for now. "I have seen enough -people who have met mysterious ends," he says. But that doesn't mean he will "sit quiet." Reading the Stoics in Khartoum taught him that "even if I am jailed or killed, I am not going to lose. If you think of loss as the loss of freedom or loss of life, you miss the point. If you die for a just cause, you are free. They are the ones who are dead, lost, finished."

The full ebook The Hunt for Boko Haram: Investigating the Terror Tearing Nigeria Apart by Alex Perry is available now.