Cameroon in for long fight as its youth join Boko Haram

The hunt for Boko Haram
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Story highlights

  • Military leader says "most of the worst attacks" were carried out by Cameroonians fighting for Boko Haram
  • Opposition leader says northern region's poverty gives Boko Haram leverage to attract young recruits
  • Government has deployed some 6,000 troops and plans to invest $135 million in development projects

Yaounde, Cameroon (CNN)Cameroon's security forces are predicting a drawn-out battle with Boko Haram as evidence filters out that the insurgents are now recruiting there.

"We don't doubt that Boko Haram is recruiting in Cameroon," said Col. Joseph Nouma, commander of Operation ALPHA, a special military operation set up by Cameroon's government to fight the Nigerian terrorist group.
    He says communities bordering Nigeria have been emptied of men between the ages of 10 and 45.
    "Many of them are found across the border in Nigeria, training with the terrorists," he told CNN.
    This has made it difficult for the country's defense forces to adequately estimate the power of the terrorist group. Nouma said the number of militants may be greater than is widely believed, though there is no reliable estimate of the group's strength.
    "Boko Haram is a permanent metamorphosis, dying every day but recruiting every day as well," says Col. Jacob Kodji, interim commander of the 4th Military Region. "And this complicates a lot of things for us."
    Nouma agreed: "We kill them, but they keep on coming."

    A heartbreaking discovery

    Boko Haram is a Nigerian-based Islamic group whose purpose is to institute Sharia, or Islamic law. They have carried out a campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, killing thousands, taking hundreds captive, and occupying swaths of territory in Borno state.
    As many as 200,000 Nigerians have fled to neighboring countries, creating an urgent humanitarian situation, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported last month.
    Cameroon repels Boko Haram attack
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    Cameroon repels Boko Haram attack 01:59
    For the past two years, Boko Haram fighters have been carrying out cross-border raids on Cameroon, slaughtering hundreds and torching entire neighborhoods. But as the country's defense forces -- later joined by battle-hardened Chadian troops -- turned up the momentum against the insurgents, the terrorists began to swell their ranks with Cameroonians.
    Nouma said he believes "most of the worst attacks we have suffered" were carried out by Cameroonians fighting for Boko Haram.
    Also, the militants' ability to hit several different places at once, and with precision, suggests that "there are people over here giving them information," Nouma said.
    In January, Boko Haram struck Fotokol, a Cameroonian town separated by only a bridge from Gambarou, Nigeria, a stronghold of the Islamist extremists. The attackers killed more than 400 people.
    Cameroonian and Chadian soldiers stationed there managed to kill 150 invaders. Among them was the son of Ahmadou Moustafa, a Fotokol resident.
    For two months, Moustafa didn't know the whereabouts of his son, Akim, or what he was doing. He didn't find out until the aftermath of the fighting, when locals removed the veil on one of the dead attackers to reveal his 15-year-old boy's face.
    "I was really shocked and embarrassed at the development," Moustafa said.

    Money's allure in impoverished region

    While it's difficult to fathom the appeal of extreme, violent doctrine among young Cameroonians, ambient poverty and chronic unemployment in the Far North region may explain why some there are lured to Boko Haram pay. The government's 2010 National Population and Housing Census found the region to be the country's poorest, with 60% of the population living in poverty.
    Joseph Mbah Ndam, an opposition member of Cameroon's parliament, told CNN that the government of President Paul Biya "has for over 30 years now failed to create jobs for the youths. And in such circumstances, they may be easily manipulated into joining such hate groups."
    A senior government official from the region, who would not be named, agreed, saying that "in a context of such extreme poverty, it couldn't be otherwise."
    "No significant economic project has been carried out there ... the Far North is the most populated in the country, but has been completely abandoned," the official explained. "So it's not surprising that youths should be sensitive to calls by Boko Haram."
    Desperate youths aren't the only recruits, however. Very often, police are bribed into collaborating.
    In January, Abdoulaye Farikou, senior inspector of police in Balaza, was arrested by the military and accused of using his position as head of the Identification Unit in the Far North region town to issue Cameroonian ID cards to militants coming in from Nigeria.
    Security officials say such a move makes it easy for Boko Haram to infiltrate Cameroon and gather vital security information.

    Hope in form of Multinational Joint Task Force

    Along with the presence of some 6,000 Cameroonian troops and plans to deploy some 20,000 more over the next two years, the government now has come up with a $135 million program to finance 94 development projects.
    Part of the money will be used to increase cereal production by 30% in the Far North region, where child malnutrition now stands at some 70%, according to Economy Minister Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi. Other investments will be made in road construction, railway development, mining and social services.
    "We can't easily win this war with military means alone," said Mijiyawa Bakary, the regional governor. "The development package government has put in place will definitely keep many young people busy, and therefore will not be charmed by the false promises of the terrorist group."
    But development projects can only be carried out in a climate of peace, and officials here hope that the Multinational Joint Task Force -- about 8,500 troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Benin -- will defeat Boko Haram and lay that groundwork.