YAOUNDE (AFP) – The Nigerian Islamist movement Boko Haram has recruited and trained hundreds of young Cameroonians to carry out attacks in their own country, according to the police and civilians.
As the militant group seeks to gain a foothold in the poor, rural north of Cameroon, experts warn that violence may spread beyond border areas to other parts of the central African country.
“Boko Haram has recruited many young people” from Cameroon’s Far North region, a police officer from the area told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The hardline movement, whose loosely translated name means “Western education is forbidden”, has for years sown terror throughout Nigeria’s northeast, then trained youths “to attack Cameroon”, the officer said.
“They are now asking them to prove themselves on home ground,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Islamists murdered nine passengers on a bus and a soldier in a separate vehicle in a remote northern town, according to Cameroon’s state radio and local paramilitary police.
Precise figures are unavailable on how many young Cameroonians have been recruited by Boko Haram, but security sources estimate the number to be in the hundreds.
In April, a local police inspector said that close to 200 young people — aged 15-19 years — were recruited in just two months in Kolofata, a small border town in the Far North.
– Recruitment drive –
Now, the same inspector says the recruits have completed their training. “Some have recently returned to their villages before going to the front.”
The jihadist recruitment drive coincides with an increase in attacks within Cameroon — including one particularly brazen operation that targeted the country’s deputy prime minister, Amadou Ali.
“At a recent meeting, Amadou Ali said he had ‘a list of 450 young people’ from Kolofata (his hometown) who were recruited by Boko Haram,” according to the police officer.
The warning from Ali, a prominent figure in Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram, proved to be a prescient one when militants attacked his home and a number of others in Kolofata on July 27.
Ali was absent at the time, but his wife was abducted along with a dozen other people. The sultan of Kolofata, Seiny Boukar Lamine, his wife and their five children were also among the hostages.
At least 15 people, including soldiers and police, were killed. Witnesses said around 200 militants were involved in the raids.
“Children from the village (of Kolofata) and the region were among the attackers,” said an anonymous source close to the deputy prime minister.
“The ease with which the perpetrators were moving in the town, where they controlled the streets, and the precision with which they attacked the homes of the deputy prime minister and the sultan reinforce our belief that some Cameroonians were in their ranks,” the same source said.
The police officer also said there was evidence to suggest the same.
“There were Kolofata guys among them,” he said.
“Several witnesses said the attackers spoke in Kanuri, in English, in Hausa, in Arabic and curiously in French,” he added.
– ‘Drugged and manipulated’ –
French is common in Cameroon, which was once a colony of France. The other languages are spoken on both sides of the border with Nigeria, which was once under British rule.
“Children from Kolofata were conscripted, drugged, manipulated and sent against their own city,” the policeman added.
Boko Haram’s campaign to involve itself in Cameroon has worried officials there and prompted fears that violence may spread.
The police officer warned that the Islamist group has “many supporters” in the Far North region — one of the country’s poorest and least educated areas. Analysts believe attacks could spread beyond the Far North.
Boko Haram has long considered the Kolofata region, close to the Nigerian border, as a haven for its activities, and as a route for smuggling weapons.
In 2012, the group started to launch raids inside northern Cameroon, mainly at Fotokol, Makary and Kousseri Dabanga, but these remained isolated incidents.
After the kidnapping of a French family in February 2013, Boko Haram stepped up attacks on Cameroonian soil, turning the area into a combat zone, though the family was freed two months later.
In response to mounting violence, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya sent his army chief north to beef up the forces. More than 1,000 soldiers have been deployed, including troops of the elite Rapid intervention Battalion.