UN Report Exposes Secret Programme for Repentant Terrorists


A United Nations (UN) publication has detailed a secret government programme tagged, Suhlu, designed to pull commanders of terrorists groups, including Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP) out of the forests, rehabilitate them and provide them a means of livelihood.

The development is coming as intelligence agencies have begun investigation into the recent surrender of over 1,200 terrorists and their families in the last three weeks.

The investigation seeks to ascertain whether the surrender was genuine or a ploy to activate and coordinate terror sleeper cells across the country.

North-east communities and traditional institutions have protested the potential reintegration of the insurgents into their communities.

Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State and Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Abubakar Umar Garbai El-Kanem, had also raised concerns that the communities where thousands of people were killed by the terrorists and houses destroyed might not be in the right frame of mind to accept the surrendered insurgents, who recently sought the forgiveness of Nigerians.

However, the report by a United Nations’ publication, The New Humanitarian, said a clandestine Nigerian government programme was reaching out to senior jihadist fighters in the bush to encourage them to abandon their goal of building a caliphate by force of arms, and to defect.

It said the report was based on six months of reporting and research.

Government officials, former jihadists, analysts, journalists, displaced people, and civil society workers were interviewed, but nearly all asked to have their names withheld or altered due to security concerns.

Some have almost certainly committed atrocities but are unlikely to be prosecuted.

The Bama massacre in 2014 killed hundreds of civilians, but one of the commanders involved is now living free on the government’s payroll.

Security officials believe sulhu could open the door to a peace deal, ending a stalemated conflict that is now in its twelfth year. But critics argue such a deal would reward mass killers.

One of the former commanders and beneficiary of the programme, Aliyu, has a new life now. The old was the decade he spent fighting with Boko Haram and then with the breakaway Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the scrubland of the North-east.

“It’s the two wives and four children he left behind when he defected, and the power he once wielded as a jihadist rijal-literally a ‘man’ – in zones under the insurgents’ control.

“In his early thirties, with a wispy goatee, Aliyu has remarried to a forthright woman from the northeastern city of Maiduguri. She is also former Boko Haram, and they have been set up with the rent-free house in Kaduna, a business license, and a small monthly stipend provided by Nigeria’s domestic spy service, better known as DSS”.

The price of this largesse: to work for DSS to turn other jihadists under a clandestine project known as sulhu – Arabic for peacemaking. It’s so controversial that no government representative would go on record to discuss it, and given Abuja’s increasing hostility to independent reporting on security matters, few Nigeria-based civil society figures wanted to be named either.

Sulhu is applauded by its supporters as smart warfare – a means to remove senior jihadists from the battlefield more effectively than the stuttering orthodox military campaign.

“We have a proof of concept; it’s working,” said an Abuja-based analyst, who wouldn’t agree to be identified beyond that description. “It’s depleting the enemy’s fighting force.”

But the men on the Sulhu programme are almost certain to have been involved in atrocities. They have not been granted a formal amnesty, but neither have they been held to account for any crimes committed in a brutal conflict that is now in its twelfth year.

It’s a war that has killed 35,000 people – 350,000 if you include the victims of the accelerating humanitarian crisis – and upended the lives of millions more, according to the UN.

“These are mass killers, yet on a programme sponsored by Nigerian taxpayers,” explained a former government-Boko Haram intermediary.

He has been in touch with the movement almost from the start, when it was still a local religious sect led by a young cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, before it declared war on the Nigerian state in 2009.

Sulhu grew out of the behind-the-scenes attempts to free the more than 270 Chibok schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram in 2014.

After years of painstaking contact-making through a network of mediators, it dawned on the negotiators that not only did they have an opening to secure the release of some of the schoolgirls, but there were also Mujahideen signalling they might be open to dialogue – a potential breakthrough in a deadlocked conflict.

A total of 150 Mujahideen have surrendered their weapons and crossed over since 2019, according to people familiar In the last few weeks, there has been a separate surge, related to internal feuding within the jihadist movement following the death this May of Abubakar Shekau, who had led Boko Haram since 2009.

Some of those Mujahideen, like Aliyu, were commanders, known as qaid – in charge of several districts. Such was the importance attached to the initial group that they were invited to Abuja, where they met representatives of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Under Sulhu, defectors are enrolled in a six-month “deradicalisation” course in the military’s demobilisation and reintegration centre in Mallam Sidi, in northeastern Gombe State.

After promising to renounce violence and be good citizens, they are issued with a graduation certificate, signed by a high court judge – and some have then gone on to set up businesses, from cap-making to chicken-rearing.

Sulhu is run by DSS and the military, but is separate from the army’s much larger disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration initiative, known as Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) and also based in Mallam Sidi.

OSC is aimed at low-risk former combatants, although as many as 75 per cent of those on the programme may never have held a weapon – just villagers snagged in the military’s catch-all dragnets, with years spent in detention without trial.

Those on the Sulhu initiative are the turbaned rijal seen in the low-res YouTube videos, exultant in victory, killing without remorse.

Before joining ISWAP, prior to the 2016 split from Boko Haram, these men had been obedient to a maximalist “takfir” creed, promoted by then-leader Shekau, who declared that anybody living outside their zone of control was an infidel, punishable by death or enslavement.

More than 1,000 Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to the army in the last few weeks – handing over the weapons they carried.

ISWAP is militarily on the front foot, but there can be exhaustion with the years of conflict for any number of reasons, explained a Nigeria-based researcher, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely.

“Some [defectors] have lost faith in their leaders, accusing them of corruption; some have even forgotten why they were fighting; others just want their children to go to school.”

But allowing jihadists to return to civilian life is clearly problematic. The military’s far more limited OSC initiative, resettling low-risk Boko Haram, has run into a wall of criticism – including from some senior politicians, who misrepresent Mallam Sidi as a holiday resort, where “killers” are pampered.

And there’s no appetite from the government to even begin to publicly discuss Sulhu.

“There’s a lack of buy-in and a lot of pushback from sections of the military and political office holders, who don’t see the need for this process,” said an Abuja-based lawyer.

Yet almost 60 per cent of people surveyed across the northeast in 2018 said they could agree to reconciliation with repentant jihadists if that was a path to peace: though acceptance was far lower in areas hardest hit by the conflict, and among women – the victims of so much sexual violence.

Aliyu feels relatively comfortable in big cities like Kaduna and Maiduguri. But there are places where he knows he would receive a far rougher reception. “People suffered,” he acknowledged. “They lost a lot [because of us].”

For DSS, Sulhu makes strategic sense. Aliyu, for example, is a so-called “pioneer”, an early member of Boko Haram as well as a qaid – this means he has a deep and intimate knowledge of the movement and the men he fought with.

The Humanitarian said, “Since he crossed over two years ago, his job has been to find other rijal wavering in their commitment to the jihadist cause. He says he has personally persuaded more than 20 of them to slip into frontline northern towns like Geidam, make pre-arranged contact with the military, and then start their journey into the Sulhu programme.

“All he needs is a cell phone and recharge card. When his connections pop up, sometimes in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger – the rear bases of the insurgency – he pumps them for news and gossip. Then, when he judges the time is right, he badgers them to quit.

“It’s not an easy conversation. Uppermost in any potential defector’s mind is the fear of being sent to Giwa Barracks, a notorious detention facility on the edge of a quiet Maiduguri suburb.

“Everyone is afraid of that place, and the people in the lake [Chad] don’t trust the government [won’t send them there],” said Aliyu. “If it wasn’t for Giwa, more would come – [the abuse that happens there] is the biggest mistake the military has made.”

The conversations aren’t one-way, either. Aliyu’s former comrades bait him, reminding him of the life he led in the Dawla – the territory ISWAP administers under shariah law and regards as independent from Nigeria.

In this zone, in the far north of Borno and Yobe States, beyond the reach of the military and aid agencies, rijal have almost total power over at least one million villagers they refer to as awam – or “commoners”.

“They say when you were in the lake [a region controlled by ISWAP], you were somebody important, now you have nothing,” Aliyu explained, and you can feel the loss of prestige irks him.

The logo on his otherwise clean t-shirt is loose, and the seam in the crutch of his faded black trousers is coming apart. But there is still an air of entitlement about him.

He was mock scandalised by the price of a bottle of water in the quiet restaurant, where The New Humanitarian first interviewed him, and he feigned outrage that motorbike taxis were not allowed into the middle-class district.

“I will always fight injustice wherever I see it,” Aliyu said grandly, seemingly the qaid – in his own mind at least – he once was.

Mothers and Sons

The publication noted that it’s unclear why Aliyu chose to run. There was a suggestion by some close to jihadist networks that he and some of his men had rustled cattle in the Lake Chad region and he was about to be punished.

ISWAP considers stealing from Muslims a crime. Unlike the more predatory Boko Haram under Shekau, it has tended to think more about civilian hearts and minds.

Aliyu denied he was at fault. Instead, he described a falling out with ISWAP’s then-commander of the army, Mustapha Kirimima, whose aggressive hardline stance persuaded others to also leave.

Kirimima is reportedly in detention after a leadership shuffle earlier this year that made Abu Musab al-Barnawi – the eldest surviving son of the founder of Boko Haram – the interim leader.

Aliyu is trying to rebuild his life. He’s in school, learning to read and write English, and keen on it. He attends a regular mosque – nothing radical – and is close to his new wife.

“One day, they [the community] will find out we are Boko Haram, but if we are together, we can bear [the stigma],” he said.

“If all mothers could welcome their sons, those in the forests, tell them no harm will come to them, they will come home”, he said.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies have begun investigation of the surrender of over 1,200 terrorists and their families.

The investigation seeks to ascertain whether the surrender was genuine or a ploy to activate and coordinate terror sleeper cells across the country.

North-east communities and traditional institutions have protested the potential reintegration of the insurgents into their communities.