By Drew Hinshaw and Adam Entous/AFP
Nigerian soldiers arrived in Mali last month; Nigeria is a country the U.S. is relying on to help contain spreading Islamic militancy in West Africa. AFP/Getty Images
KUMBOTSO, Nigeria—The shooting clattered on for 30 minutes, residents of this dusty town say, and when it ended, four militants holding a German engineer hostage were dead. So were the engineer, and four innocent bystanders.
In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America’s strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter.
It is just one example of the limits to what is now American policy for policing troubled parts of the world: to rely as much as possible on local partners.
The U.S. and Nigerian authorities don’t fully trust each other, limiting cooperation against the threat. And U.S. officials say they are wary of sharing highly sensitive intelligence with the Nigerian government and security services for fear it can’t be safeguarded. Nigerian officials concede militants have informants within the government and security forces.
For the U.S., though, cooperation with Nigeria is unavoidable. The country is America’s largest African trading partner and fifth-largest oil supplier. Some 30,000 Americans work here. Nigeria has by far the biggest army in a region where al Qaeda has kidnapped scores of Westerners, trained local militants to rig car bombs and waged war across an expanse of Mali the size of Texas. Last month, al Qaeda-linked extremists’ attack on a natural-gas plant in faraway Algeria left at least 37 foreigners dead.
In Nigeria, a homegrown Islamic extremist group loosely called Boko Haram has for years attacked churches and schools. The name translates as “Western education is sin.”
Now, the sect’s followers are joining a broader holy war, led by al Qaeda and financed by kidnappings. On Feb. 16, militants in Nigeria’s Muslim north abducted seven mostly European construction workers.
Three days later, gunmen crossed into neighboring Cameroon to kidnap a family of French tourists outside an elephant park. The family appeared in a YouTube video posted this week, its four children squirming on camera, as a spokesman read a message for France, which last month attacked al Qaeda fighters in its former West African colony of Mali.
“We say to the president of France, we are the jihadists who people refer to as Boko Haram,” the turban-shrouded man said. “We are fighting the war that he has declared on Islam.”
French officials said they were analyzing the video and considering the difficulties in either entrusting Nigerian soldiers to rescue their citizens or staging a rescue raid in a foreign land.
Such kidnappings, like the attack in Algeria, show how extremist groups are leapfrogging borders.
Boko Haram has fought alongside the regional al Qaeda affiliate known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, according to residents of Mali. Hundreds of self-identified Boko Haram fighters last year learned to fire shoulder-mounted weapons at an AQIM-affiliated training camp in Timbuktu, Mali, said a cook who fed them and neighbors who watched them.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau spent much of last year in Mali, according to a senior Nigeria security adviser.
In Boko Haram “you have a group that’s becoming increasingly efficient and one that al Qaeda, AQIM, can use down the road,” said John Giacalone, a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent in New York who oversees counterterrorism work in Africa.
Days after the gas-plant attack in Algeria, French oil company Total SA said it was moving expatriate workers from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to the south of the country, where kidnappings are more common but less violent.
While the French battle militants in Mali, the Obama administration has limited its role to providing logistical and intelligence support and drone surveillance from a base in nearby Niger, believing others such as France, Nigeria and other African allies have more immediately at stake and should assume most of the risks and costs.
That fits a broader U.S. pattern: After a decade of troop-intensive land wars that have strained American budgets and left the country war-weary, the U.S. is depending increasingly on regional powers.
“It can’t just be the United States. It can’t just be Europe. It’s got to be the African nations as well joining in this effort,” departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview.
The new national-security team President Barack Obama has chosen is expected to embrace a light-footprint approach that relies on special forces, drones and local partners to combat terrorism, officials say.
Mr. Panetta brushed aside doubts about relying on Nigerian forces. “You can’t give up on this thing,” he said. “It’s really important for the African nations to be able to develop their capabilities. I don’t think we should just assume that we can’t do that.”
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said Nigeria is the African country of the greatest strategic importance to the U.S., but has sought to keep the American military at arm’s length. “The Nigerians regard themselves as the hegemons of West Africa, and they are traditionally suspicious of other powers involving themselves,” said Mr. Campbell, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Doyin Okupe, senior special assistant to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, agreed that “Nigeria sees itself as a regional power in Africa. It’s the dominant force, really. Nigeria is a very proud nation. We feel that to subjugate our military under another world power would be to really compromise our integrity.”
He said Nigeria is willing to let Western nations supply equipment, “but we might not be too predisposed to subjugating our forces to undergo training under another military.”
Washington has struggled for years to cement close ties with the Nigerian army. The U.S. military’s Africa Command invited the Nigerian military seven years ago to participate in Operation Flintlock, an annual multinational counterterrorism exercise. Nigerian generals balked at sending a large contingent of soldiers.
The U.S. later proposed setting up a specialized counterterrorism unit within the Nigerian military, but it foundered, according to U.S. officials.
After a Nigerian recruited by an al Qaeda branch tried to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas 2009, the U.S. ramped up its approach.
Since the thwarted attack, the U.S. has been working with Nigeria on creating an “intelligence fusion center” for rapid sharing of information collected by various Nigerian security services, say State Department officials.
U.S. military officials see this as an important first step to see whether the Nigerians can handle security threats themselves. After two years of effort, the plan has only inched forward, owing to mistrust among agencies and fighting over funding, officials in both countries say.
Nigerian officials have acknowledged that Boko Haram has a web of informants within the government and security services, inhibiting closer cooperation with the U.S.
“Some of them are in the executive arm of government, some of them are in the parliamentary arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary,” said Mr. Jonathan, the Nigerian president, after a bomb blast leveled a church in 2011. He added: “Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies.”
U.S. officials, especially at the State Department, worry that the Nigerian security force’s free-shooting ways make the security situation worse.
Nigeria Police Force Order 237 allows officers to shoot anyone “who takes to flight in order to avoid arrest” and lets the police decide what constitutes avoiding arrest.
The country’s National Human Rights Commission estimates the police kill 2,500 Nigerians each year. By comparison, Boko Haram has killed around 2,000 in the four years since the once-obscure group grew into an insurgency, New York’s Human Rights Watch estimates.
Amnesty International posted a report on Nov. 1 that accused the Nigerian army of burning houses, cars and shops and of shooting dead “people who were clearly no threat to life—unarmed, lying down…cooperating with security forces.” One day later, Amnesty said that in just two days, the Nigerian army had shot at least 30 young men. The local nickname for a branch called the Mobile Police is “Kill and Go.”
“Military and police heavy-handedness in the north is core to the story of Boko Haram’s emergence,” said Michael Woldemariam, a professor of African security studies at Boston University. “You can’t discount the effects of the state’s brutality in the north.”
Nigerian generals reject such criticism and note that they send more peacekeepers to the United Nations than all but four other countries. “We are respected all over the world,” said an army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mobolaji Koleoso. “We are talking about decent men and women who are well-trained and well-schooled…. It’s not that we’re going outside to go and kill people.” He called the Amnesty report “frivolous.”
But a growing chorus in the capital is pushing for reform. “There is a recognition here that things are going to have to be done differently,” said Fatima Akilu, a psychologist named last year as director of the Nigerian national security office’s new hearts and minds campaign. “Nobody can win this situation using force alone,” she added.
The hostage case in Kumbotso offered a glimpse of the security forces in action.
Edgar Raupach was among hundreds of German engineers working in Nigeria’s booming construction industry, helping pave stretches of road.
In January 2012 he disappeared from the northern city of Kano, and word spread in nearby Kumbotso that some men had brought home a German hostage. Locals said these men were unpopular outsiders who didn’t speak the prevailing Hausa language.
If the outsiders weren’t popular with the Nigerian villagers, Nigeria’s national police and armed forces were even less so. Residents at a town council meeting quarreled over whether to tell the security services, some arguing that doing so might just make matters worse, according to people who attended.
The outcome was unclear, a council official saying he sent a letter to the government but got no reply, while other residents doubted a letter was ever sent.
Two months after his kidnapping, the engineer appeared in a video begging his government to meet the demands of men he described as holy warriors from al Qaeda.
The group asked for the release of a jailed German woman, Uma Saifullah Al-Ansariya (born Filiz Gelowicz), who had been convicted in Germany of supporting a terrorist group.
As it happened, she was due to be released from a German prison in April. She was freed. Mr. Raupach wasn’t.
His Nigerian employer ran an ad in Arabic and English in the region’s leading newspaper: “100 DAYS MISSING. Edgar Fitz Raupach,” it said. “Your sister Uma Saifullah Al-Ansariya (Filiz Gelowicz) is free since two weeks. When do you release our brother EDGAR?? HIS FRIENDS ARE WAITING FOR HIM.”
Eventually, someone slipped word of the hostage’s whereabouts to an agent of Nigeria’s secret service. The response was swift. As village residents rose from the following morning’s prayers, hundreds of Nigerian soldiers stormed into the town. They began to “shoot everywhere,” one resident says.
The gunfire lasted about 30 minutes. The army says the soldiers killed all four kidnappers. Residents say the kidnappers actually numbered about 10. They say four Kumbotso bystanders died in the crossfire.
The military unit declined to comment beyond a press statement. It said that the soldiers weren’t aware the hostage was there and that his captors stabbed him to death.
Hours later, soldiers returned with a bulldozer and destroyed what remained of the kidnappers’ compound, along with any evidence of their identities. Investigators still aren’t sure who they were.
—Devlin Barrett and Musa Ibrahim contributed to this article.