Reporting terrorism is not different from reporting our normal, everyday news; news must be current and mean something to people though in different ways.
Terrorism means different things to different people as well. While others see acts of terrorism as a crime against humanity, some see it as a religious duty that offers martyr status to the perpetrators. In Nigeria, the concept of suicide bombings and armed robberies in the name of religion was initiated by the Jama’atu Ahl-Sunnati Lil Da’awati Wal Jihad, otherwise known as the Boko Haram, an Islamist sect in northern Nigeria. The impact and depth of their destruction to the institutions of government and public psychology is unparalleled and is at an increase.
As a reporter for several newspapers in Maiduguri (the nerve centre of the sect), I reported exclusively and predominantly on the activities of the sect and painstakingly built and developed a network of invaluable sources within the sect. And I strongly believe that what gave the organizers of this forum the idea of inviting me to this platform is the nature of my involvement in reporting the activities of this sect. Therefore, I will try to restrict my presentation to my personal experiences in reporting the activities of Boko Haram.
Every major news outbreak frequently starts as a signal which is most often ignored, sometimes by even acclaimed professional journalists. Today’s terror monster in Nigeria or any society for that matter does not erupt instantaneously. The big bang is usually preceded by a signal that is often overlooked.
In 2002, two amateur clerics, Mohammed Alli and Mohammed Yusuf (both deceased), began to sow the seeds of intolerance. The sect argued that Islam permits them to subsist under a modern government like the Nigerian state but has explicitly prohibited them from joining or supporting such governments in so far as their systems, structures and institutions contain elements contradictory to core Islamic principles and beliefs.
The group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, once described the cosmological view that resulted from such an ideology “Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rainfall, which we believe is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”
Why are such signals ignored? I daresay that they are frequently ignored because they don’t announce themselves at press conferences; neither do they bear the outstanding faces of our everyday politicians.
When does a signal that is not so self-evident become something of interest to a reporter? My first training as a reporter at the Abuja bureau of the Insider Weekly magazine in 2001 was premised on the watchdog role of the media to reveal information not known to the public.
I secured my first job as a reporter with the Insider without presenting the usual smart curriculum vitae; mine was a Primary School Certificate but my editors believed that information that is unique and refreshing from someone with very little formal educational background was more valuable than the frequent parading of cute ivory tower diplomas that offer so much ego and polish with no substance.
With the unusual lenses I earned from my training at the Insider, I left the publication in 2002 but that entrenched nose that sniffs up signals did not leave me. And so, I dispatched the first newspaper article on Muhammad Yusuf, the leader of the ‘Boko Haram’ Islamist sect, on 23rd July 2006, at a time the sect was virtually a non-starter in Nigeria.
As a reporter I thought their doctrine was strange even if obscure. I narrowed on that which appeared strange to me and filed my first reports. My reports were no condemnation. No personal views. They were no obfuscations. They were simple news items that crucially identified the four “W”s and the one “H”.
As it is widely believed, the disposition of society can instigate and perpetuate terrorism. Bad governance, corruption, unemployment, poverty and widespread frustrations, etc, became the unassailable grounds of social indoctrination by Mohammed Yusuf, the pioneer leader of the sect. As a reporter I was preoccupied with the curious realities around me. How the sect was going about with extremely dangerous doctrines without the intervention or indeed any interest from the law enforcement agencies in the country. I became a lone-ranger.
Press conferences did not hold any appeals to me. I desired to speak with the sect leader and I did. He appeared excited about the prospect of featuring in a newspaper, offered me small cash as a compliment but I declined. Happily, my editors in Abuja saw some news value in what I was dispatching and put some of the reports to use.
As my reports appeared, the confidence of the sect’s leadership in my professional judgment grew. At a stage the leader asked me for some professional advice on his intention to set up a newspaper.
Soon, ours became a relationship, but for me it was simply the relationship between a reporter and a vital news source. It was a relationship defined by mutual respect.
The sect, for instance, made known its planned mayhem of July 2009 to me hours before they attacked. I hinted the local authorities but they were simply not interested in what seemed to them the outrageous ranting of some obscure clerics. The sect seemed determined to decapitate the police and was spiteful of every structure or representation of civil obedience.
Reporting terrorism has its challenging sides. For me, I was stigmatized. Fellow reporters who were only interested in recycling dubious claims of officials at press conferences peddled the report that I was a member of the sect planted in the newsroom.
On Tuesday, 29 July, 2009, at the height of the Boko Haram mayhem, after I informed the Police of my intention to embark on a reporting trip to the Boko Haram enclave in Maiduguri to interview Mohammed Yusuf, the local authorities practically declared war against me and my organization. I was arrested accused of fraternizing with Boko Haram at the seat of power of in the state.
Indeed, I was dramatically ordered to lie down flat, the first necessary step before the police would normally pull the trigger on its victims, but somehow the two police officers, each with an AK47 nuzzle pointing on me, began to argue between them over who was going to pull the trigger on me.
More dramatically again, the governor of the state on whose orders I was arrested in the first instance, seemed to have had a rethink and sent word that he did not want to see a corpse at the Government House. My point is that I was judged guilty by association and such remains one of the major challenges of reporting terror in a society with extremely weak institutional structures.
I was then taken to the state police headquarters where I would have been executed were it not for an intervention by a police undercover agent with the sect who affirmed that I was indeed a journalist. During my 5-day detention at the police headquarters in Maiduguri, Muhammad Yusuf and hundreds of some of his unarmed followers were killed.
Earlier in this discussion, I focused on signals that herald news breaks. Even amid the bloodletting of terror and efforts at curtailment there are still other sub-signals with the potentials to erupt into other disturbing cauldrons of widespread violence. In Nigeria, for example, the attempts by the security agencies to curtail terrorism is typified by harsh, inexcusable crimes against the helpless and hapless members of the society.
In my own case, after I exclusively reported on the suicide attack by a member of Boko Haram on the headquarters of the Nigerian Police, few meters away from the presidential villa in Abuja on June 16, 2011, as well as the bomb attack on the United Nations House, I started getting death threats on a daily basis and I became a frequent guest in several offices of security agencies.
One of the major problems in the Boko Haram war with the Nigerian state is the lack of accurate information and analysis in the media that probes into the mindset of the terrorists’ visions, operations, strategies and structure. From my experience, the perspectives of the security agencies and those of professional reporters can run in opposite directions.
For instance, the recent botched attempt by a combined team of Nigerian and British security officials to rescue some foreign nationals kidnapped by suspects with direct links with Al-Qaida in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria has brought more confusion and little clarity to members of the public. It seemed acceptable to the Nigerian security outfits to argue that the suspects were members of a Boko Haram splinter group.
My journalistic investigations suggest and indeed clearly point in different direction. Al-Qaida cells are already at work in Nigeria and the security agencies as in 2006 are again living in denial. It is worthy of reporters to ensure that their reporting on sensitive national issues do not undermine national security. But how does operating and living in denial of the existence of a nightmare help society or advance national security or indeed promote journalistic ethos? That’s where I frequently find the gap between the values of journalism at grave cross with the kind of security mindset we have in Nigeria.
Choosing between Two Evils
It serves society well to pay due attention to signals that may herald disasters. Most Nigerians take their religions personal because they perceive that in their religion lives are preserved, a better eternal future is determined and stability is guaranteed within society, yet without being watchful, it is within these religions that disasters regularly erupt. Doctrines that preach intolerance or social disobedience are usually the breeding ground for radical violence.
These are as disruptive to social stability as the display of high-handedness by agents of the state who come in the guise of curtailing the initial volleys of violence. A woman once stopped this reporter in Maiduguri and said, “I was told you have access to Boko Haram, please take my telephone number and give them. I lost my husband and two of his brothers in the hands of some soldiers’ right before my eyes and the trauma made me to have a miscarriage. I want to kill as many soldiers as possible before they kill me.”
If care is not taken women may soon join the band of suicide bombers in Nigeria!
Another potential for disaster that may befall Nigeria is the massive recruitment into the nation’s security agencies to contain the rising challenge of terrorism in the country. But nobody is paying attention to the very little background checks of the candidates that are now forming a battalion in the nation’s defence force.
Many expert accounts argue that reporting terrorism presents a number of dilemmas and paradoxes to journalists, especially reporters whose sole objective is to reveal information not known to the public. In the case of Boko Haram, millions of US dollars are spent every day on security, with little challenge to the activities of the sect. Therefore, when a reporter has a rare and robust professional access and penetration into the minds of the men who work and vend violence, he or she needs to be respected principally by the security agents.
Reporting terrorism on the other hand must however not be for the reporter with the motive to lift the profile of the terror operatives. Very high level of discretion is required.
Text of a speech delivered at a forum in Dakar, Senegal.