Understanding The Shia-Army Battle

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Background

The Shia religion was first introduced to Nigeria in the early 1980’s by a young man from a village just outside Zaria, named Ibrahim, who had recently from studying in Khomenei-led Iran. He first began teaching his new creed at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, disguising it in the political language of liberating Palestine from the Jews (which every Muslim buys into), ending American aggression, arrogance and imperialism, and establishing an Islamic Republic under which Muslims would be ruled by the Sharia. These ideas, combined with his powerful oratory and the perception many people had of him as educated, wise, intellectually gifted and cultured in contrast to the old school mallams who couldn’t speak any form of English.

Iranian financing and support from Lebanese Shias living in Northern Nigeria soon helped Ibrahim Az-Zakzaky and his movement expand into a massive body that drew in over a million people across Northern Nigeria. This so called Islamic Movement targeted mostly poor rural communities which have been oppressed and neglected by society, using cash, the promise of justice and equity in an Islamic Republic, the promotion of brotherhood, and the availability of affordable modern education (the so called Boko), which it provided at great cost, to lure multitudes in.

When the Islamic Movement of Ibrahim Az-Zakzaky first began, it was dismissed as another unrealistic Islamist movement in Nigeria by the Nigerian security services, and this dismissal was because that era was a time when one new islamist group gets established each day in Northern Nigeria, only to fizle out before the end of two years.

However by the late 1990’s, the military and security services hardened their perception of the so called Islamic Movement, elevating it to the level of a portent insidious national security threat. They were alarmed by the degree of Iranian control over the movement, the movement’s relations with Hezbollah, its fanatical adherence to Wilayatul-Faqih, and its rejection of Nigeria and Nigerian authorities, instead accepting the Supreme Leader of Iran as the only legitimate authority they answer to, and Ibrahim Az-Zakzaky as the Rahbar’s viceroy in Nigeria.

According to a former highly placed military intelligence officer in the Abacha regime, it was decided at the highest levels, that the military and the entire national security apparatus must do whatever they can to keep the Shias out of the establishment, which they were well suited to infiltrate with their high literacy rates. Coupled with the group’s accumulation of arms and receiving of training and support from Iran via Hezbollah’s operatives in Nigeria and the Iranian consulate in Kano, the military and the national security architecture have vigorously tried to enforce a policy of containing the Shias and their influence in society, and keeping them out of the establishment, clamping down on them whenever it was deemed that they were becoming too troublesome, or that their strength needed to be bleeded out a bit. This started during the Abacha years, and has been faithfully implemented right into the democratic era.

Last year, the military attacked the Shias in Zaria without provocation or cause, using disproportionate force, and killing over 35 Shias including three sons of Zakzaky. There was widespread condemnation, and it took the personal intervention of the then Kaduna State governor who worked behind the scenes to approach the Iranian ambassador and the consul in Kano to reach out to Zakzaky to prevail on him to control his followers and prevent an escalation of hostilities.

According to a serving military officer, Unknown to the governor and the wider world, military units had been beefed up in and around Zaria starting two days before the incident shootings occurred, and the military was prepared to use any retaliation by the Shias as an excuse to go in and destroy the Zakzaky movement, its structures and identified leadership. This officer said the decision to dismantle the so called Islamic Movement was taken by the national security apparatus sometime last year, before the attacks in Zaria. Asked if this was a decision the political leadership signed off on, he replied that on fundamental threats to Nigerian security, the military’s intelligence services operate outside the regular system, keeping the political leadership out of the loop if necessary, as the security of Nigeria surpasses the legal requirement of civilian control of the military. The politicians have always displayed a lack of understanding of the complex world of national security, and usually made political decisions that were detrimental to the country’s national security. Hence informally there is a tacit understanding within the national security community, that on such fundamental issues affecting the core security interests of Nigeria’s security, the politicians are kept out of the chain of decision making.

The Zaria shootings last year of over 35 Shias including three of Zakzaky’s sons were the opening salvo in an undeclared war. The Army had moved significant destructive resources into areas in and around Zaria, hoping to be given an excuse by the Shias to go in and cut off the heads of the snake (structures, arm caches and leadership), which it believed were sequestered in the Gyallesu area of the city where the Shias had established their headquarters. Wisely the Shias refrained from falling into the trap the military had carefully set for them, and after several attempts to provoke a reaction went unsuccessful, the Army stood down its forces brought in for this mission.

There was an eerie peace over Zaria following this. To the average people, the violence that was expected to follow the killing of Zakzaky’s sons did not materialize, and life quickly went back to normal. Behind the calm scenes however, the military and the Shias were busy positioning themselves for when the next battle in this war will occur. According to the aforementioned military intelligence officer, the Army’s Directorate of Military Intelligence aka DMI, stepped up intel gathering against the movement, seeking to develop a more accurate picture of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and the way it is structured and run, with a focus on identifying weak points that if hit hard would cause the movement to crumble and disintegrate. .

With this stepped up intelligence gathering campaign, came the formulation of a proper plan to be implemented if the opportunity presents itself. However, the restraint exercised by the Shias even after they were targeted by suicide bombers that they rightly or wrongly assumed to have been sent not by Boko Haram, but by the Nigerian military, prevented such an opportunity from arising.

The Events Of 12th December 2015

There are several versions of what happened on that day, what led to what happened, and what was just justified or not in what happened. I have listened to first hand briefings from all sides, i.e the Army’s, the Shia’s, people who were neither with the Army or the Shias but were present at the scene. And I have watched multiple videos of the incident many of which will never be released to the public domain. Whatever conclusions I have reached here, I have reached after careful analysis and a sincere attempt to understand all that transpired on that day. I may be right or completely wrong, I may never know as I was not a participant or a decider in these events, but my work here as been done in good faith.

On the 11th of December 2015, the Shias and the Sufis of the Tijjaniyyah Tariqah engaged in fighting after changes were made in the leadership of a mosque which was jointly controlled by them. This was in a small village just outside Zaria. The fighting involved the use of sticks, knives and machetes on both sides. Surprisingly, the Army (not the Police which has first jurisdiction in such incidents) appeared on the scene, and in the attempt to control the situation, killed three Shia youths. Now accounts of this incident are hotly disputed.

The Nigerian Army insists that its soldiers were threatened and used live ammunition to defend themselves from the fighters, killing the three Shias in the process. The Shias denounce this account as lies, and insist that the soldiers did not attempt to disperse the fight, rather they opened fire only on the Shias. The Sufis say that the Army did attempt to disperse the fight, but that the Shias were adamant and resisted the military’s efforts to disperse the fight, following which the soldiers opened fire. Whatever the truth was, three Shias were killed, and tensions rose as the community remembered how the same Army killed over 35 of their number just last year, including three sons of Zakzaky.

The next morning, the Shias began a procession, protesting their deaths the night before. While on their way through Zaria town, they were informed that the Chief Of Army Staff, Lt.Gen Tukur Buratai was on his way through the town, and they thus proceeded to block his path.

They were armed with nothing except sticks and stones at this time, which would not have been enough to overpower the COAS’s security detail or smash through his bulletproof vehicle body. However the Shias blocked the road, with the the overt intent of protesting to the COAS, the killing of three of their number the previous night by the Nigerian Army.

The Shias did not initially attack the convoy of the Chief Of Army Staff, instead they were chanting and refusing passage. The initial reaction of the COAS’s escort personel was to prepare to open fire, this was only averted by an officer (seen in the video) who was screaming hysterically “Don’t shoot! don’t shoot!”.

The officer then proceeded to demand and subsequently plead that the Shias open the road and allow the COAS’s convoy through, but the Shias refused to do so unless they address the COAS himself, accusing him and the Army of deliberately oppressing their sect and seeking to exterminate them. The Officer did not acknowledge their demands, but rather kept insisting that they first clear the road and allow the convoy through. When he kept dismissing their angry protests of the killings the night before of three Shias by the Army, and the killings of over 35 Shias in 2014 again by the Army, the Shia youths began to stone the convoy and increased the tempo of the shouts. Shortly thereafter, the soldiers opened fire on orders said to have been given by a senior officer in the convoy. The crowd scattered and people began to run helter-skelter, but the soldiers fanned out systematically spraying the area the Shia protesters were fleeing to with live rounds. Shortly thereafter, reinforcements arrived, on both sides. Armed Shias who had rushed to arm up from the sect’s caches in Gyallesu and other areas of Zaria on hearing that their brothers were under attack, rushed in and met military reinforcements rushing to beef up the COAS’s security detail, and provide a safe exit for the COAS. Gunfire was exchanged on both sides. By the time the smoke cleared, between thirty and forty people lay dead, most of them Shias.

At some minutes past 7pm, Shia sources say that Ibrahim Az-Zakzaky was informed that the Nigerian Army was making preparations to storm Gyallesu and kill him.

The Shia leader was advised to go into hiding by his closest advisors, and he initially resisted the idea but ultimately he was pressured by his advisors to accede to this advice.

From 6pm, military units drawn from Kaduna, Abuja and Kano began pouring into Zaria, amongst them elements of the 176 special forces battalion of the Brigade of Guards, which according to the senior military intelligence officer, was given the responsibility of leading the door-to-door assault operations .

Sometime after 9pm, the Army finished encircling the neighbourhood for the most part and launched its assault. The orders given to the soldiers were simple, use maximum force, terminate with extreme prejudice anyone deemed to pose any sort of threat to the soldiers, except designated persons who were to be captured alive if possible.

The military’s assault on Gyallesu was met with armed resistance contrary to what is widely believed, and some soldiers may likely have perished. While the assault was ongoing, Shias in Zaria called Shia youths in Zango area of Kaduna telling them that Mallam was under attack, the Army was searching specifically for mallam, and that God Would ask the Shias of Zango, Tudun Wada, Kaduna if they did not rush to aid Mallam (meaning Zakzaky), and instead abandoned him like Al-Hussain was abandoned at Karbala. Over 120 young men I can confirm left Tudun Wada, Kaduna that night headed for Zaria, none of them returned. It is believed they died in the fighting at Gyallesu.

Sometime in the morning the next day 13th December 2015, the soldiers finally battled their way to Zakzaky’s house where they captured the younger Turi, Mahmud Turi who was tortured according to eyewitness accounts from both sides, and refused to betray where Zakzaky’s location was. Seeing that he was of no practical use to them in finding Zakzaky, the commander of the detachment that captured Turi radioed for orders, and was given the order which he passed on to his men, to kill Mahmud Turi. Turi was riddled with bullets and his body bagged and tagged along with the bodies of other top members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. These bodies are now believed to be in the custody of the Army’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.

One of Zakzaky’s sons was executed in front of the house also, and according to eyewitnesses on both sides, Zeenat, Zakzaky’s wife, was inside the house along with many other people, when it was brought down by the special forces operators.

[According to the senior military intelligence officer whose account of how Zakzaky was found was corroborated by other senior officials in the national security establishment, Zakzaky was found by the DMI Signals Intelligence Division who tracked the call Kaduna State Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai made to Zakzaky that day. Was the governor aware that his call was to Zakzaky was tracked? this remains unclear.

What is clear is that Zakzaky’s location was triangulated using that call, and that shortly thereafter, troops drawn from the crack 145 Battalion arrived in the area the Shia leader was holed up, with elements of the Nigerian Navy’s Special Boat Service said to be assisting.

There was a firefight, and Zakzaky was shot six times (according to what was attributed to the doctor who first treated Zakzaky at 1 Division’s medical centre before he was moved to 44 Nigerian Army Reference Hospital where he was operated upon and then moved again) before he was dragged out of the hole/bunker in which he had sought refuge.

Was The Army’s Actions In Zaria Planned?

The answer is yes and no. What happened in Zaria was not initially planned, but it gave the necessary pretext the Nigerian military establishment needed to activate its operational plan to demonize, decapitate and dismantle the Zakzaky-led Islamic Movement of Nigeria, before it grows too big to handle.

The road block incident in my opinion falls into one of two categories:

It was a staged encounter, the Shias were baited and lured there and the pretext needed to activate the plan was encouraged to be created there. It could perhaps be argued that the killing of the Shias the night before, the leaking of the COAS’s ETA and travel route, and the making sure there were cameras around to record certain scenes, were part of a grand conspiracy to ensure that a necessary pretext was generated from that incident.
It was not staged, but it was hijacked and manipulated to create the necessary pretext for the military establishment to launch its attempt to dismantle the Islamic Movement of Nigeria led by Zakzaky.
Whatever the case, somewhere along the line, while the incident of the roadblock was ongoing, it was decided by someone or some people to initiate this plan.

Aftermath

Casualties

I believe the Human Rights Watch was extremely conservative in its estimate of the number of people that died in this fighting. A more realistic figure would be closer to a thousand, probably 700 or more. This is going by the number of people missing, reported to have been killed etc from Shia sources. The number of Shias from Zango, Tudun Wada, Kaduna and from Unguwar Mu’azu, Kaduna that went to Gyallesu the night of 12th December, and are believed to have perished in the fighting there, alone pass the 150 mark.

A large number of the Shias killed in Gyallesu were young men, followed by women and then children caught in the cross-fire. The men were deliberately targeted. After it became clear that vetting combatant young men from non-combatant young men in the heat of fighting was not possible. Many more were summarily executed in the search for Zakzay, including three of Zakzaky’s sons.

Detainees

Hundreds of Shias are said to be held in detention in military facilites across Kaduna, and Kano states. They are being kept in appalling conditions, and there is frankly no direction on what to do with them

Zakzaky

The case of Az-Zakzaky is a complex one. He was first taken from Zaria to 1 Division Headquarters, Kawo, Kaduna where he was given first aid at the medical centre there. However due to his gun shot wounds which included shrapnel in his face (there are credible rumours that he may have lost an eye), he was moved to 44 Nigerian Army Reference Hospital in Tudun Wada, Kaduna, where he was operated upon, according to miltary sources. He was then moved to a DMI facility in the outskirts of Abuja. He is not in the custody of the Nigerian Police Force as at the time of writing this post, as is being claimed. Rather there are credible reports that he may be in terrible condition or close to death, and it was claimed by the DMI, that they have moved him to a hospital in Lagos, as he needed surgery that could only be performed there. This was within the last 48 hours.

Political Machinations

This incident occurred without the knowledge beforehand, or permission of President Muhammadu Buhari. In fact, the President himself has tacitly recognized that on fundamental issues of national security, the military will not hesitate to act without seeking his permission. The defence establishment ran the operation autonomously without keeping the political leadership in the loop. The Ministry Of Interior, the Police and the SSS were also kept out of the loop. The Army has point-blank refused to grant access to Zakzaky and other Shia leaders it has in its custody to the MOI, DSS and NPF. It as a matter of fact refused to even tell them in what state Zakzaky was being held. The President himself in this dispute between the MOI, the DSS and the NPF versus the Army and to a lesser extent the Navy and Airforce, has made it clear that he will not interfere in the Army’s campaign to dismantle Zakzaky’s group, despite that the other agencies have argued that ultimately this military plan will risk causing more problems than it has solved.

What Led To The Military Deciding On This Strategy?

Firstly, was the fear of a Hezbollahization of Zakzaky’s movement. They were gaining supporters, and creating an open pro-Iranian fifth column inside Nigeria that made it clear that it owed its fealty and allegiance to the Iranian Supreme Leader, not to any local religious or traditional leader. This fifth column was also receiving arms and training from Iran through the Iranian consulate in Kano (which is spied on by the Saudis, Egyptians, Americans, Nigerians, Israelis etc), and through Hezbollah via the Lebanese Shia community in Kano and Abuja.

The fear of a well armed, well trained, religiously committed , too large to wipe out , Iranian fifth column exercising veto powers over Nigeria’s security and political direction as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, scared Nigeria’s security policy makers beyond anything else. This fear extends back into the 90s.

To prevent such a scenario occurring, it was decided last year to demonize, dismantle and decapitate the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, and to reduce it to just another religious sect, not the highly organized cultlike group it is.

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