Boko Haram brought terror to Niger. Can a defectors program bring peace?

The State Department is set to invest millions to deradicalize fighters in Niger.
Alhaji Ari Mustafa, 68, center, speaks Sept. 1 in a refu­gee camp outside of Diffa, Niger, about his son who was captured by Boko Haram.
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Photos by Jane Hahn

Atop a remote desert dune in the poorest corner of the least-developed country in the world is an internment camp, the site of a high-stakes program that U.S. officials hope will be a model for winning the war on terrorism.

The camp is in Niger, where the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a military strategy to counter groups aligned with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It now houses 132 former Boko Haram fighters who are referred to as “the repentant ones.”

Alhaji Ari Mustafa, 68, center, speaks Sept. 1 in a refu­gee camp outside of Diffa, Niger, about his son who was captured by Boko Haram.

With Boko Haram still thousands of fighters strong and able to control entire swaths of West Africa, the U.S. State Department is about to invest millions of dollars into an alternative strategy that is locally born: a deradicalization program started by a Nigerien governor that promotes defections and prepares ex-combatants for reintegration into society.

Lured by the local governor’s promises of amnesty, the defectors at the camp in Goudoumaria risked death by escaping one of the world’s most bloodthirsty terrorist groups. But for over a year they have languished in the remote outpost, without work or school as distraction, waiting for officials in the country’s capital to decide who among them should be put on trial and who should be pardoned.

Capt. Moussa Garba Hassane, a Nigerien military officer who oversees the camp, said, “To them, their detention seems like it may be everlasting. We have promised them training and reintegration, but instead we have put them in an oven and forgotten about them.”

Challenges are stacked against the program. The part of Niger where it is taking place barely has an economy after a decade of war, and much of its population has been traumatized by the fighting, making reintegration of fighters hard to fathom.

An overhead view of an internment camp for ex-Boko Haram combatants in Goudoumaria, Niger.

The State Department’s main partner, the Nigerien government, has taken more than a year to pass a law that lays out how it will determine whether defectors should be put on trial or rehabilitated and released through the program. The law, once passed, will unlock the majority of U.S. funding, but almost nothing has been done to deradicalize the ex-fighters yet. Many in the camp expressed regrets at defecting, lamenting the loss of their youth first to Boko Haram, and then to the camp.

The U.S. military, which lost four soldiers in Niger last year, has thrown its support behind the fledgling program.

“We realize that most, if not all of the issues we face alongside our African partners can’t be solved by military action, which is why our command is fully committed to a whole of government approach in support our African partners,” said Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command.

State Department officials are optimistic the bureaucratic bottleneck will soon be past, and say they are confident that the program will be more than just an experiment.

“We need to prove that deradicalization has to be part of the game plan,” said Neal Kringel, who heads the Africa desk at the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. “We’re hoping that what we’re doing in Niger can eventually be extended elsewhere.”

Mustafa Aboubacar, left, a 27-year-old Boko Haram defector, prays at the Goudoumaria internment camp. During his time with the militants, he said, he committed too many sins to bear.

‘If you run, we shoot you’

Mustafa Aboubacar was 22 when Boko Haram first showed up near his home on the shore of Lake Chad in 2013.

“It was dozens of them, and they came at night. They said, ‘If you run, we shoot you,’ ” he said in an interview at the camp in Goudoumaria.

But a few days later, he recalled, a Boko Haram commander handed him 1 million Nigerian naira, or about $6,250 at the time, an astronomical sum in a country where the average income is about $400 a year. It was an investment in his family’s goods-trading business, with two major strings attached: He had to supply the militants with whatever they needed, risking arrest or worse, and he would have to join them whenever they needed foot soldiers.

Nonmilitant deaths in attacks by Boko Haram

and affiliated groups in the past three years

Detail

10

35

50

NIGER

CHAD

Bosso

Karamga

Goudoumaria

Diffa

Jabullam

Lake

Chad

Baga

Damasak

NIGERIA

Maiduguri

N’Djamena

Maroua

100 MILES

CAMEROON

Source: IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nonmilitant deaths in attacks by Boko Haram

and affiliated groups in the past three years

10

35

50

100 MILES

CHAD

NIGER

Bosso

Karamga

Goudoumaria

Diffa

Jabullam

Lake

Chad

Baga

Damasak

NIGERIA

N’Djamena

Maiduguri

Detail

Maroua

CAMEROON

Source: IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nonmilitant deaths in attacks by Boko Haram

and affiliated groups in the past three years

10

35

50

100 MILES

NIGER

CHAD

Bosso

Karamga

Goudoumaria

Diffa

Jabullam

Lake Chad

Baga

Damasak

NIGERIA

N’Djamena

Maiduguri

Detail

Maroua

CAMEROON

Source: IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center

THE WASHINGTON POST

Nonmilitant deaths in attacks by Boko Haram

and affiliated groups in the past three years

10

35

50

100 MILES

NIGER

CHAD

Bosso

Karamga

Zinder

Goudoumaria

Diffa

Jabullam

—Lake Chad

Baga

Damasak

NIGERIA

Maiduguri

N’Djamena

Kano

Detail

Maroua

CAMEROON

Source: IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center

THE WASHINGTON POST

The U.S. military estimates that Boko Haram’s two factions, the larger of which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, now have a combined 5,000 fighters across the Lake Chad Basin, which includes parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Over nearly a decade, they have forced innumerable young men like Aboubacar to join them and have killed tens of thousands and left almost 2.5 million without homes.

The number of fighters may seem small, but it totals more than all of Africa’s other Islamic State affiliates combined, and many of the militant group’s members regularly move between civilian life and combat, making them hard to track.

Months after Aboubacar accepted Boko Haram’s money, the group invaded his hometown, Bosso, storming a nearby Nigerien army compound and killing dozens of soldiers.

That was the beginning of three years “in the bush” he said, during which he “committed too many sins to bear.” Asked whether he killed anyone, he thought for a long time and then claimed he had forgotten.

Like many who are now in the internment camp for defectors, Aboubacar, now 27, heard about the local governor’s amnesty program over the radio. He, his two wives, his infant child and another fighter escaped their encampment, walking for days across Lake Chad’s rapidly drying landscape. His friend died on the way, but Aboubacar arrived safely and became one of the first defectors.

Almost two years later, the word that would best describe him is exasperated. Nothing happens in the camp all day, except prayer. The food is the same every day. He’s been in the internment camp long enough to have had another child with his second wife, who is 15, and worries the boy will grow up within the confines of the mud-walled camp, rimmed with barbed wire.

“I’ve had enough of this,” he said. “Coming here, it was a big mistake.”

Luma Malam, 6, left, and Busam Malam, 9, stand in the window of their room at the Goudoumaria internment camp Aug. 30.
Abukhar Bulama Yassine, 45, and his 6-year-old son, Abukhar, have been at the camp for eight months.
A former Boko Haram combatant leans against a window of a dormitory room.
Mustafa Kelou, 20, right, and Usman Legare, 17, are seen in an internment camp dormitory room.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Luma Malam, 6, left, and Busam Malam, 9, stand in the window of their room at the Goudoumaria internment camp Aug. 30. Abukhar Bulama Yassine, 45, and his 6-year-old son, Abukhar, have been at the camp for eight months. Mustafa Kelou, 20, right, and Usman Legare, 17, are seen in an internment camp dormitory room. A former Boko Haram combatant leans against a window of a dormitory room.

‘I can’t forgive him’

These “repentant ones” are now in a state of limbo, while officials in Niamey, Niger’s capital, mull the contours of the screening process that will decide the defectors’ fate.

Should people like Aboubacar be considered terrorists who may have committed war crimes and thus must answer in court? Or should these young men, some of whom were teenagers when they were forced at gunpoint to join Boko Haram, be considered the victims of terrorism instead?

Under legislation awaiting passage in Niger’s assembly, a panel of high-ranking judicial and law enforcement officials would attempt to assess, for each defector, the likelihood that he had committed a war crime. Those deemed not likely war criminals would be released into the community and providing with religious and psychological counseling, along with occupational training. The others would be sent to trial.

U.S. officials say the wait for a legal framework to screen the defectors is essential, if frustrating. Because this is the first program of its kind, a strong framework would provide the basis for Niger’s government to continue it even if a new administration came into power. The framework could be adapted to other conflicts, such as in Somalia or even Afghanistan.

In countries like those, U.S. military leadership has acknowledged that enemies such as al-Shabab and the Taliban can’t be eliminated by killing every last member. Extremist groups also commonly discuss U.S. military presence in their countries in their recruitment propaganda. Harder still to fix are radicalization’s underlying causes — job scarcity, lack of education, and even oppression from governments that the United States supports.

A man guides a cart Sept. 1 outside of Diffa. Many residents in the area dont want former Boko Haram members integrated back into their towns.

An even larger question lurks beneath the neat plans to counsel, train and reintegrate the defectors: Even if the program works, will the thousands of families that have lost everything — sisters, uncles, limbs, homes — to Boko Haram’s reign of terror accept the defectors back into society? After nearly a decade of violence, most people here are destitute, exhausted and yearning for a return to normalcy. And yet trust and forgiveness can be especially tall orders.

“Even my son is with Boko Haram, and I can’t forgive him,” said Alhaji Ari Mustafa, 68, who was once wealthy enough to make gifts of his goats and go on the pilgrimage to Mecca but has now been in a refugee camp outside Diffa for four years. “I find it difficult to trust this plan. If it works, that means the criminals will return to our villages. If it fails, it will be bad, too. We will lose hope.”

Alhaji Ari Mustafa, 68, is seen in the Boudouri refugee camp outside of Diffa. The original village of Boudouri housed between 200 and 300 people but has swelled to more than 5,000.

‘You can either save them or kill them’

Boko Haram’s 2016 attack on the military base in Bosso took place on Dan Dano Lawaly’s third day as governor of Niger’s Diffa region.

That day, Boko Haram decapitated dozens of Nigerien soldiers and made off with their uniforms and weapons. Diffa was paralyzed with fear.

The Nigerien government imposed a state of emergency, still in effect today, that banned all motorcycle travel, and all use of Lake Chad and the Komadougou River, the lifeblood of an economy reliant on fishing and pepper farming. Everything ground to a halt. Millions faced a choice between becoming reliant on humanitarian aid or joining Boko Haram, which promised prospective fighters motorcycles, phones and concubines on the other side of the Komadougou, in Nigeria, where the group is strongest.

 

“Many felt that Boko Haram were liberators at first,” said Moulaye Hassane, chief of research at the Nigerien government’s National Center for Strategic and Security Studies. “People in Diffa — many of them don’t even know the color of our currency. When they realize the state has given them nothing and Boko Haram is promising everything, it is very easy to see why so many made that choice.”

Lawaly sympathized. “I said to myself, you can either save them or kill them,” he remembered. “But this thing doesn’t end with guns, no way.”

With the help of local traditional chiefs and community radio stations, he started sending out messages that defectors would be protected.

By the time he had 180 people, including defectors and their family members, he was invigorated and proud, calling them “my children.”

Children play soccer Aug. 30 at an internment camp for former Boko Haram combatants in Goudoumaria, Niger.

It was around then that the Nigerien and U.S. governments took interest. The Americans flew Lawaly to Washington for meetings, and to northern Uganda, where the U.S. military had helped successfully implement a much smaller defection program, aimed at Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

Mahamadou Kindin, 22, a former electronics salesman who joined Boko Haram at 17, stands in his dorm room at the Goudoumaria internment camp.

An uncertain future

Mahamadou Kindin wonders how he’ll be categorized. He joined Boko Haram when he was 17, partly out of peer pressure. A group of fighters came to Jabullam, his village in Nigeria, just on the other side of the Komadougou River from Niger.

They held a big sermon claiming to be the representatives of “true Islam” and asked anyone “brave enough” to step forward and join them. Two friends whom he looked up to did, and then he felt his own feet moving.

The next 3½ years were hellish, he recalled. He was present at some of Boko Haram’s most infamous attacks — Baga, Damasak, Karamga, Bosso.

“The commanders told us to shoot anything that moved,” Kindin said.

In Bosso, he was shot in the leg, and his commander consoled him and said he had been brave.

But he didn’t feel brave. He said he felt sickened. He knew in his heart that he was sinning, and that “true Islam” was something other than what his commander thought. Like Aboubacar, he now says he’d never join Boko Haram again but admitted that it’s partly because the group would surely kill him for defecting even if he tried.

“Even if they made me sultan of all of Lake Chad, I’d never go back,” he said.

He feels safe in the camp but has no idea what he’ll do if he’s released. He has a wife and a child to support. He had heard the promises that once the U.S. money comes through, he might get trained as a carpenter or a welder and be “reintegrated.”

The big question is where: Where will he be welcomed? Where will those trades be needed? Where are his parents?

“I can’t go back to Jabullam,” he said. “Jabullam is gone. We burned it to the ground.”

A boy stands at a doorway in the Goudoumaria internment camp.

Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

Credits: Story by Max Bearak. Photos by Jane Hahn. Designed by Kazi Awal. Photo Editing by Olivier Laurent.