By Prince Charles Dickson
On Saturday, 4 October, 2013, Bauchi, capital of Bauchi State, was experiencing an unusually cold weather. At the Old GRA, a suburb of the city, Ismaila Gambo, a 21-year old with a neatly trimmed beard got up at dawn and headed to a nearby mosque for his morning prayers. He wore a grey sweatshirt atop a pair of jeans and boots.
Ismaila’s dressing suggested that he was off to some high-energy work. But he was actually headed for Maiduguri, capital of Borno State where he believed he was to carry out a self-appointed divine assignment.
Upstairs, in a bedroom in the Gambos’ home, a duplex, his17–year-old sister, Khadija, said her own prayers. She was dressed in a long gown and wore a headscarf as she waited for her brother to return.
Khadija wore a niqabi, a veil worn by a Muslim woman so that only the eyes are visible. Soon, if all went according to plan, Khadija would be married to a jihadi, a fighter for the cause of Islam. What would her husband be like? She hoped he would be handsome and bearded like Ismaila, her brother.
When the men returned from the mosque just before 6 a.m., Khadija waited until she heard her father go back to bed. Then, before her parents woke up, she stuffed some pillows under the covers to make it seem like she was the one in bed and mentally reviewed her checklist: – clothes for five days, boots, warm socks, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, her niqabi, hijab, and Qur’an.
She grabbed her suitcase, walked downstairs, slipped through the door with her brother and they sped off in one of their father’s many cars.
For the Gambo children, they were embarking on a journey to fulfil destiny. Both had been radicalised by the extremist ideology of Boko Haram and were making a trip to be part of the movement they believed in. But fate had other plans for them.
The two Gambo siblings – this website agreed to change their names for security reasons – had been plotting their journey for over a year. They had been in touch via the telephone and internet with others who had become convinced that the Boko Haram ideology represents the way to salvation.
Ismaila is an Engineering graduate of the Abubakar Tafawa Belewa University, Bauchi, his sister a second year French undergraduate of the University of Jos, before they embarked on their journey.
But Ismaila and his sister did not fulfil the mission to join the insurgents. They were caught because he mixed up the phone number of his contact, a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri which was given to him by the Boko Haram. The contact was to have provided them with accommodation in GRA Maiduguri.
“I made a mistake with the numbers they (Boko Haram) had given me in Bauchi, and by twist of fate it was another University of Maiduguri lecturer’s number.”
“The lecturer played along, and while we were waiting, the house was raided,” Ismaila recalled, without regret.
He and his sister are among many that wanted to join Boko Haram or successfully joined but have been caught and are now cooling their heels at a detention camp in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State and the heart of the insurgency.
The icirnigeria.org was given a brief, exclusive access to the detention facility in Maiduguri, one of the many such places where the children of mostly rich and powerful people who have supported, sponsored or were working for Boko Haram are being kept.
The story of these “rich kids” provides a small window into how some of the terrorist activities of the Boko Haram group have been financed. Apparently, part of the insurgency group’s past success can be attributed to the contributions these children made to their “cause”.
Ismaila told the icirnigeria.org that there were many of them who were successfully recruited from very influential homes to work for Boko Haram. Many of them consider claims that the insurgency was poverty-driven laughable.
Major Adegboyega Sam, one of the officers at the camp, said that when Ismaila and his sister were caught, they had almost an equivalent of N3 million in various currencies, several banks’ ATM cards, four smartphones and three laptops.
“There are many of them here, children of influential Nigerians, some we have been keeping for more than three to four years. We only await instructions from above; ours is to follow orders,” he said.
In spite of several hours of interrogation, investigators who have handled the case of these young Nigerians are still a bit confused about how they got conscripted to work for Boko Haram. There are still too many questions unanswered. Why did they leave everything dear to them – family, privileged upbringing and life – without looking back to become terrorists?
The services that Ismaila intended to offer Boko Haram are unclear, even to him. According to a rough transcript of his confessional statement, he told security operatives that he wanted to play a “public-service role” — delivering food, or, perhaps, providing intelligence for the sect. Maybe “a combat role,” he said.
Ismaila said that he had never held a gun, let alone fire one. As he claimed, his desire was to help Muslims. He wanted to die fighting a holy war.
When asked if he was willing to be used on a suicide mission, Ismaila said: “Yes, if it pleases the Almighty Allah.”
“I did not just run with my sister. An Islamic State had been established, and it is thus obligatory for every able-bodied male and female to fight to keep it. I wanted the comfort of a new khalifah (caliphate),” he said.
Investigations show that there are many like Ismaila who have come to believe in the Boko Haram ideology and have provided support in terms of intelligence, logistic support, food, transportation and so on. Others have directly provided funds to oil the wheel of the deadly insurgency campaign waged by Boko Haram against the Nigerian state and its people.
Another inmate of the detention facility, Musa Awal, 18, was restless as he spoke to our reporter.
“This nation is openly against Islam and Muslims, especially since Jonathan became President and the evil of this country makes me sick,” he said angrily.
Musa is the third son of a wealthy family from Borno State. His family came into wealth during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha. He told our reporter boldly that not only is education harmful, but “living in this land is haram [sinful].”
But when reminded that he had attended some of the best schools in Nigeria, he kept mute, looking bemused.
When Musa was caught, he begged that his parents should not be called. He told interrogators that if he confessed, his parents would be killed.
According to a security source, this suggests that he must have worked in a group of people – the possibility of a cell could not be overruled.
Another source at the Directorate of Behavioural Analysis which is part of the office of the National Security Office, NSA, revealed that they had been tracking finance and supplies to Boko Haram for long and it was no surprise that many influential families had set up some sort of fund which they released in the shape of “protection monies” to Boko Haram.
“Some of them watch helplessly as their kids become radicalized and when we nab them, some even prefer that their wards are left in detention out of fear,” said the source.
The source disclosed that one way that Boko Haram finances its operations is through collection of protection money which it obtains from willing sources or through blackmail and coercion of residents of territories it controls.
For example, rich people like Ismaila and Musa, who sympathise with the Boko Haram fighters, funnel monies to the insurgents ostensibly for protection but in reality as financial support to prosecute their activities.
The source contends that, it is why, curiously, in spite of the numerous attacks on Maiduguri, places like the old and new GRA where wealthy and influential people stay have never been attacked.
“Go to both the new GRA and the old one, none of them has been attacked all these years that the insurgency has lasted,” he stated.
When our reporter visited Musa’s parents, it was obvious that they were regular people, although wealthy.
His mom expressed shock that he had become radicalised and joined a terrorist group. She said that the only time her son was violent was when he was aged about eight. That was when he got angry and broke the television. She also said they ensured that their kids never had unsupervised internet access and encouraged them to watch cartoons.
“We wanted to preserve their innocence, but maybe with all the affluence we failed,” she said with a sigh.
The story is no different from the Gambos whose children first attended religious schools before heading to the upscale Hillcrest School in Jos, Plateau State, after which they spent a year in a preparatory college in the United Kingdom. After that, back home in Bauchi, a private Islamic teacher came home to give them Islamic knowledge in what they considered a conducive environment.
But the story of radicalised rich kids like Ismaila and Musa cannot be strange or new to those who know about Farouk Abdulmutallab, who at 23 attempted to bomb a US-bound plane on a Christmas Day in 2009.
The youngest of the 16 children of Umaru Mutallab, a wealthy businessman and banker from Kastsina State, Farouk, now popularly known as the “underwear bomber”, hid explosives in his underwear which failed to detonate on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan.
Among other charges, he was arraigned for the attempted murder of 289 people and was in February 2012, sentenced to four life terms and a 50 year jail term.
There is also the story of Ibrahim Uwais, the son of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, who allegedly left with his two wives and children to join the ISIS.
The 41 year old devout Muslim who was perceived to have hated Boko Haram, its ideology and killing of innocent people, left his father, Muhammed Uwais, and other family members shocked.
Kunle Nwosu, a psychologist with the NSA office’s Counter-Terrorism Department, works on a de-radicalization programme started recently for these “rich misdirected boys” as he called them.
He said in many cases, most of their parents are nice, regular people and the kids seem well adjusted. They are obedient, well-mannered, got good grades in school and are volunteers in mosques. Religion plays a central role in their lives and they make efforts to pray five times daily.
“To be honest with you, you can’t imagine their kids being Boko Haram,” Nwosu stated.
Aliyu Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar in one of Maiduguri’s many Islamiyya (Islamic schools), explained why many kids from wealthy homes are Boko Haram supporters. “We have a lot of experience with these influential children. Many of these kids are Boko Haram fans. Something just goes wrong. It probably begins from drugs, stealing, waywardness and then sympathy for Boko Haram,” he said.
“If you read many of their statements, there is a similarity to them as if they’d been copied from a script. For example you keep seeing the phrase “I simply cannot sit here and let my brothers and sisters get killed by infidels; I am ready to die and so forth,” noted Nwosu.
Nwosu observed that most of the boys and girls in the facility were arrested before the coming of the Islamic State, IS, which has launched a terrorist campaign in the Arab world. He believes that many such youths who are open to extremist indoctrination might have since joined ISIS and that Nigeria may already have a large army of radicalized youths that could make the country a huge tinderbox.
But if nothing can be immediately done about Nigerian youths that might be flocking to join ISIS, certainly, back home, the state can take action against those who have been detained for links to Boko Haram. Or so it seems.
For, our reporter wondered why such potentially dangerous youths would be kept in detention for years, some as many as four years, without being brought to trial. But it is not as cut and dry as it appears, it seems. Even our security source at the camp balked when asked why the detainees had not been charged. He did not provide an answer.
But another security source, who is also a lawyer, who does not want to be named, said there is no legal obstacle preventing the military or security agencies from charging them to court, reasoning that there are a plethora of charges that can be brought against them.
“Basically you have something like knowingly attempting to provide material support and resources to a terrorist organization in the form of personnel — namely, himself, monies and so on,” he observed.
Even then, he added that ‘”a wide range of activities is criminalized under the Terror Act, including supplying weapons, money, personnel or training to providing things like humanitarian relief, conflict-resolution training and other expert advice or assistance.”
It is not known precisely how federal authorities arrived at its targets and under what laws some of these semi-juvenile detention facilities are run. In all, it was discovered that there are four facilities – one in Borno and Plateau states and two in Abuja – all catering to some 1,000 individuals aged between 15 and 30.
The National Security Adviser’s Office would not speak officially. The Department for State Security too said it is not aware of the existence of these facilities.
Similarly, the military appeared unwilling or unable to offer any information. The publication of this report was held up for several weeks in order to get the defence spokesman, Chris Olukolade, a Major General, to speak on the detention camps but it was difficult getting him until last week.
When confronted with our findings last week, Olukolade stated that he was not aware of any detention camp where young Boko Haram financiers or supporters were being held,
He however, promised to find out and react appropriately later. Until the time of going to press, Olukolade had not been able to provide any information on the matter.
The icirnigeria.org, however, learnt that investigation of many young people at various stages of radicalization is still ongoing. Also, agents are gathering intelligence and setting traps for unsuspecting targets like Ismaila.
This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting