Nigeria’s Hybrid Threat: Terrorists Allied With Bandits

With kidnapping a prominent weapon, Muslim Fulani tribesmen wage war against Nigeria’s Christians
March 2, 2021 Updated: March 3, 2021

To talk to Barry Asake today, you could picture a 57-year-old architect working in downtown Washington and driving home every day to leafy Bethesda, Maryland, and not a man who 90 days ago was hiking 11 hours a day through thorn bushes while guarded by heavily armed bandits.

But Asake lives in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, and not Washington. Just three months ago, he got caught in the vortex of crime that has plunged his nation into crisis and caused some U.S. Africa watchers to worry that Nigeria could morph into a state dominated by an ISIS-like caliphate.

Asake’s nightmarish abduction ended without tragedy after a two-day ordeal, but he considers himself lucky.

“It was beyond lucky; it was God’s mercy,” he said in a telephone interview. “But you would be shocked to hear what they told me just before I was let go.”

Asake was driving home to Abuja along with a longtime friend on Oct. 28 when he encountered eight bandits armed with AK-47 assault rifles. He stopped his 2013 Toyota Camry at a police checkpoint around 7:15 p.m. in Afana, a village near Kafanchan, Nigeria.

“I pulled over to wait for a truck that was in the checkpoint coming from the other direction,” Asake told The Epoch Times. “In seconds, gunfire erupted from behind me. We were instantly alarmed. I made some quick efforts to accelerate and find a way to pass through.

“That was when I realized it was a total ambush: they opened fire from the front and both sides of the car. I parked the car, motor running, air conditioner on, opened the door, and surrendered.”

With the sound of his Camry idling on the road behind him, Asake and his friend, Yusuf Duniya, were pushed by the gunmen toward the forest.

“They later told me if I hadn’t stopped when I did, they’d have killed both me and my friend in the car. … That they usually start by shooting to scare, then switch to shooting to kill. They’ve killed many people that way, they told me.”

Epoch Times Photo
Members of a bandit gang pose with their weapons in northwest Zamfara state, Nigeria, on Feb. 22, 2021. (Voice of America)

Over much of the next two days, Asake and Duniya, a Nigerian army officer who was out of uniform on the day of the abduction, hiked at gunpoint for hours in the savannah woodland.

“We marched most of the night up hills and down ravines and through dense forest with the bandits, all of whom were speaking Fulfulde language.”

That’s the language of the Fulani people, who comprise one of the largest transnational tribes in Africa; President Muhammadu Buhari hails from this ethnicity, as do heads of several West African states and leading United Nations officials. A subset of poorly educated Fulani cattle herders has turned to banditry.

“The Fulani youth were gulping energy drinks and pills that apparently kept them high,” according to Asake.

“We probably walked about 70 miles,” he recalls, and though the brush was home to the highly venomous snake referred to as a carpet viper, Asake said he was more worried about being shot. Whether by luck or God’s mercy, the kidnappers didn’t discover that Asake’s brother was an outspoken advocate for persecuted Christians in the state of Kaduna, or that Duniya was a soldier.

“They didn’t check us online, otherwise, the outcome might have been worse.”

A ransom of 4 million Naira ($10,000) was paid by midday of Oct. 30, when the kidnappers let the two men limp out to the road. Asake’s car had been stolen, although police eventually recovered it with his laptop still inside. With swollen feet and covered with mosquito bites, the two went to the police headquarters in Kafanchan to file a report. On their way, they revisited the checkpoint and confronted the cops who had left their posts prior to the ambush.

“They told me they received a distress call from some other section of the community and had to leave,” Asake said.

“That didn’t seem credible. I learned from others in Kafanchan that after the ambush, the three cops returned to the checkpoint. I have been told this has happened several times before,” Asake told The Epoch Times, adding that, as far as he knows, there have been no arrests and no investigation of the crime.

Calls to the police commissioner for Kaduna weren’t returned.

Epoch Times Photo
Barry Asake back home in Abuja, Nigeria, on March 1,2021. (Barry Asake)

Bandits or Terrorists

When Nigeria makes news, which isn’t every day, the news is often shocking, even macabre. The reports often include videos of mass beheadings of victims uploaded to social media; scenes of burned villages and corpses of women and children slashed to death; or videos of uniformed terrorists showing off their armored personnel carriers, armor-piercing grenades, and artillery.

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, boasting 220 million people, and the richest, and its hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States are high achievers. At home, however, the horrors are traumatizing.

Since Nigeria’s inception, it has suffered from factional conflicts, but, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, “a slow-motion war” is now underway, which is “a massacre of Christians.”

The onset of this war can be traced to 2009, when the ISIS-linked terror group Boko Haram surfaced as an armed insurgency and was followed by the spinoff group Islamic State of West Africa. More than 43,000 lives have been lost in battles between the well-armed Islamist insurgents and the Nigerian army in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, according to the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON). Close to 2 million women and children have fled the fighting, living in squalid camps for displaced persons.

During the same period, 17,284 Nigerians have been killed in attacks by Muslim Fulani terrorists, according to Kyle Abts of ICON.

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A mass grave following a Fulani massacre in Kaduna state in Nigeria in March, 2019. (Stevan Kefas)

“In just four of the Middle Belt states, more than 9,700 have been killed since 2015, of which the lion’s share of the fallen lived in Christian communities,” Abts said. These figures don’t include deaths and incidents caused by the newly used categories of “bandit” or “kidnapper.”

“ICON believes that these kidnapping and banditry gangs are primarily Fulani militants, as often those who pay the ransom deal with Fulani,” Abts said.

In total, far more than 62,000 Nigerians have lost their lives from sectarian violence since 2001, according to Silent Slaughter, published in 2020 by ICON.

Radicalized bandit gangs on motorcycles have embarrassed the nation’s security forces with spectacular abductions of school children in three northwestern states since December 2020. Gangs kidnapped more than 300 students in Katsina on Dec. 11, then 42 students and staff from a school in Niger state on Feb. 17, followed by the abduction of 300 schoolgirls in Zamfara state on Feb. 27.

In every case, the students were released to officials after negotiations with the bandits. While the government insists that no ransom was paid, after such exchanges, “a ransom is always paid,” according to David Otto, security consultant for The Geneva Center for Security and Strategic Studies.

In 2020, Fulani gangs killed hundreds of unarmed Christian farmers, burned entire villages, and abducted thousands of civilians, including Nigerian police. In the southern part of Kaduna alone, more than 250 people likely were kidnapped for ransom, based on the record of ransoms paid to the bandits.

“In southern Kaduna alone, our members paid one billion naira [more than $2.62 million] in ransoms last year,” according to Asake’s brother, Jonathan Asake, who is head of the Southern Kaduna People’s Union (SOKAPU). More than 3,200 Nigerians were kidnapped nationwide in 2020, according to ICON.

Any clashes between the semi-nomadic Fulani terrorists and local farmers are entirely one-sided. Strict gun-control laws in Nigeria prevent civilians from buying firearms except on the black market. While the majority of citizens in Nigeria’s Middle Belt are unarmed, those restrictions haven’t stopped thousands of Fulani herders from carrying assault rifles.

Failed State

Security experts in Nigeria and the United States, including former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf and Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy, have warned that Africa’s largest country is sliding toward becoming a failed state.

Both have warned that unchecked ethnic cleansing of Nigerian Christians by Islamic radicals has resulted in a genocide that’s hardly been noticed by the world community.

“The Fulani terrorists in Nigeria have murdered far more people than Islamic State did in Iraq,” Wolf has said.

“During the last year, the informal Fulani militias began merging with Boko Haram,” ICON’s Abts told The Epoch Times. “Militant and terrorist groups are reported to be working together. There are eyewitness accounts of Fulani militants working with Boko Haram / Islamic State of West African People, ISWAP / and Ansaru, an al-Qaida-aligned group.

“This is the testimony of several kidnap victims (and those who mediate their release) who report the involvement of ethnic Fulani in the organized insurgencies. Nigeria’s government needs to prevent these loose affiliations from developing and formalizing.”

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A man tries to salvage valuables from burned shops after deadly ethnic clashes between the northern Fulani and southern Yoruba traders at Shasha Market in Ibadan, Nigeria, on February 15, 2021. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

“Nigeria is transiting from the third to the fourth and final leg of a process of decline,” said Rev. Ladi Peter Thompson, a Lagos, Nigeria-based security adviser to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “It is a process of total subjugation of the population by the clinical use of terror.”

Government spokesmen for years have insisted to media that the Fulani-linked bandit gangs should be called “criminals” and not sectarian terrorists, since the motivation for their crimes has been solely economic gain.

“The jihadists have made gains in Nigerian media,” Thompson told The Epoch Times. “These days, we are required to call them simply bandits.”

Climate Change or Islamization

Nigerians are sharply divided about whether the bandit gangs, whose members typically identify as Fulani, are in fact unacknowledged allies of militants seeking to topple the government in Abuja. The public debate centers around what the root causes are.

“Climate change and economics” was the answer given by Nigeria’s minister of information, Lai Mohammad, to viewers of Channels TV on Feb. 20.

Meanwhile, advocates for persecuted Christians, who may constitute half of Nigeria’s population, insist that officials have turned a blind eye to jihadist genocide perpetrated by both the well-equipped Islamic militias and the equally radicalized Fulani bandits in the northwest.

“Most of the actors are Fulani, the ethnic group that spreads across West Africa and is known for being nomadic pastoralists, while the communities being attacked are mostly Hausa farming communities,” according to reporting by influential blogger Mark Amaza in Quartz Africa.

Amaza summarizes the so-called “Farmer versus Herder” conflict this way, “The current violent dynamic started soon after vigilante groups formed from the Hausa communities for security purposes carried out extrajudicial action against Fulani pastoralists, as tensions mounted from increasing competition for land and water resources between the pastoralists and the farmers as the effects of climate change exacerbate.”

Epoch Times Photo
Supporters of the “Coalition of Northern Groups” rally to urge authorities to rescue hundreds of abducted schoolboys, in the northwestern state of Katsina, Nigeria, on Dec. 17, 2020. (KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images)

According to this thinking, which is shared by many U.S. State Department experts, the thousands of Nigerian civilians slain by Fulani herdsmen have been caught up in clashes over scarce land and water resources.

“We’re good at handling range wars,” a top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja joked during an NGO conference in Washington in 2020.

However, kidnapping survivor Asake, who grew up in embattled southern Kaduna, sees the problem differently.

“The bandit attacks are part of a grand scheme to Islamize Nigeria—through displacement, impoverishment, intimidation, even depopulation or annihilation,” he says. “Right now, almost all key government positions are occupied by the Fulani, including well over 90 percent of key security agencies.”

Asake’s opinion reflects one that’s widely shared by Nigerian Christian activists. Although the president of Nigeria is a devout Muslim of Fulani ethnicity, his vice president is a prominent pastor from a popular megachurch.

But Asake isn’t impressed, saying, “Where you find a Christian heading a sensitive institution, you can bet your bottom penny he’s their puppet, a total stooge.”

In fact, 10 of the top 12 management positions in the Nigerian military and intelligence sectors are held by Muslims, according to former Nigerian military sources who spoke to The Epoch Times on background.

‘Protected Areas’

That doesn’t mean the Fulani bandits aren’t victims themselves. By all accounts, the bandits hiding in forests live a harsh life. They and their families lack medical care and can’t use local markets for fear of arrest; their children don’t attend school and are left to drink water from muddy ditches, according to Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who has acted as a go-between for bandits holding school children abducted in Niger state.

As with any criminal gang, bandit leaders fare better. The boss of the Fulani gang appeared to be sophisticated, according to Asake.

“One of their bosses visited us in the wilderness,” Asake said. “He was clean, nicely dressed, in a tracksuit and sneakers. He was groomed and seemed fairly cosmopolitan. After he left, they told us they took orders from him. I would not doubt if he too is only a bit player in the command chain.”

“But the boys with rifles were clearly impoverished, and some said they regretted selling their souls to the devil,” Asake said. “I doubt that any of the eight riflemen got more than 50,000 naira (about $130).”

Asake’s deep, calm voice apparently reassured them.

“As we parted, one requested, ‘Please pray for us!’”

Even so, rampant kidnapping will never make Nigeria a failed state, according to The Geneva Center’s Otto.

“The country has serious crises, but it is making serious responses, too,” he said.

“During the last year, the Nigerian military changed its overall strategy to defeat Boko Haram and has had some battlefield successes; however, Nigeria is not fighting to win a war, rather it is managing the war,” he said.

“In Nigeria’s political-military ecosphere, all the players know their place on the map and stay within their territories. For example, since 2012, there have been no attacks on Abuja or major cities—the terrorists don’t dare,” he said.

“What is going on now is that the Nigerian army, the insurgencies, and the bandits have carved out protected areas. It’s the little guy on the street selling peanuts who is the victim.”