It’s several weeks since the Islamist militants of Boko Haram kidnapped more than 260 girls from a 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 pajama, tunic and cape. A second clip is more recent, from 2013, and shows Shekau in a clearing, looking far bulkier, in full combat camouflage.
The next clip shows Shekau’s former No. 2, 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, Nigeria, a town on the Cameroon border. The fighters, who appear to be mostly teenagers, grin shyly at the camera. Abu Sa’ad says that 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 walking 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!” (God is the greatest) he shouts, over and over. “Allahu Akbar!” All around him, 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.”