Why Boko Haram Keeps Bombing Nigeria’s Mosques

The new democratically elected president has turned up the heat on the terror group. So it’s coming after every last Muslim who voted for him.

Since taking office a little over a month ago, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has made the war against terror in his country his top priority, meeting with leaders of neighboring countries affected by the brutal Boko Haram insurgency; relocating his military command center away from the capital Abuja to the northeast city of Maiduguri, the heart of the insurgency; and attending a Group of Seven meeting with a detailed wish list to take on the violent Islamist extremists.

In return, Boko Haram appears to be coming after every Nigerian who voted for the man the terror group has labeled an “infidel”—and Muslims like him who support democracy.

“The reason why I will kill you is you are infidels, you follow democracy,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video message released in February, weeks before the election. “Whoever follows democracy is an infidel. This is Shekau, this is why I’m in enmity with you.”

With Buhari having been elected president, courtesy of an overwhelming support from Muslim voters in the north, Shekau’s followers are now following through on that very threat.

It began May 30, a day after Buhari was sworn in. A male suicide bomber detonated inside a mosque near the central marketplace in Maiduguri, killing 26 worshippers, injuring more than 30, and leveling the site.

For weeks, attacks followed in heavily populated northern Muslim areas, targeting traders and commuters. But Boko Haram saved its worst for the days leading to the end of Ramadan. On the night of July 3, its militants killed nearly 150 people praying in mosques as part of the holy month. Witnesses said the insurgents mowed down men and children in three remote villages in Borno state—and shot women preparing food at home. The militants slaughtered residents and burned down houses in their deadliest day since Buhari came to power.

In Kukawa, the worst-affected village, Mo Yusuf, a member of the local vigilante group, said gunmen killed at least 97 people, mainly men, who were gathered in mosques, praying ahead of breaking their fast.

The attack came the day after the Islamic sect hit a nearby Mussaram village and killed an additional 48 men and boys. There, insurgents ordered men and women to separate and then opened fire on the men and boys, an eyewitness said.

The attacks follow a directive from the self-proclaimed Islamic State for fighters to increase attacks during Ramadan. Boko Haram in April announced it had become ISIS’s West African franchise. By Friday, as Muslims around the world prepared to celebrate Eid al Fitr, some 300 were dead in Nigeria, including at least nine more on Friday in Damaturu, after female suicide bombers detonated at a festival screening area.

But Boko Haram’s thirst for the blood of Muslim worshippers goes beyond its alliance with ISIS. It regards the traditional Islamic religious authorities in northern Nigeria as corrupt, self-serving elites that are too close to the secular government, and makes no distinction between them and their followers.

Last November, Boko Haram militants opened fire on worshippers at the Kano Central Mosque, located next to the palace of the emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, an influential northern Muslim leader. About 35 people died.

The attack was in response to a statement made by Sanusi, calling on Muslims to “acquire what they need” to defend themselves from Boko Haram, and saying: “People must not wait for soldiers to protect them.”

Most Islamic leaders have shied away from direct criticism of the jihadi group for fear of reprisals. But Sanusi, a notable voice in the campaign to free the abducted Chibok girls and a close ally to Buhari, has been increasingly vocal.

The president himself may best illustrate new worries about the mosque attacks. This month, he attended Friday prayers inside his official residence in the presidential villa—the first time a Jumat service was held on the premises—rather than at the National Mosque in the center of Abuja.

A statement released by Buhari’s spokesman insisted he did so “out of consideration for avoidable hardships imposed on members of the public by road closures and other security measures.”

But not everyone is convinced.

Ushie Michael, a security analyst based in the southern city of Calabar, said the Abuja National Mosque has very few restrictions for Muslim worshippers, and given the level of insecurity and threats by Boko Haram, it portends a huge risk to the president.

“The president’s security team probably knows it is risky to attend the Jumat service at the National Mosque,” he said. “At this time when Boko Haram has made attacks on mosques their top priority, they wouldn’t want him to become a target.”