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Ex-Boko Haram militants in ‘service of God’

Camp offers men, many forced to fight, a chance to repent, change their lives

Ali Abare Abubakar

Special for USA TODAY

GOMBE , NIGERIA Aminu Usman sat facing his interrogators and answered questions thrown at him about his life as a Boko Haram terrorist.

“We were told that we were in the service of God,” said Usman, 35, a laborer and father of five. “That if we die, we would go to paradise.”

Usman explained his journey to militancy not in response to the threat of torture by Nigerian military captors but to sympathetic listeners hoping to change his life for the better.

He is among 95 Boko Haram members trying to repent by surrendering their weapons and participating in a government program to de-radicalize them and assimilate them into society.

The program is part of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s outreach to those who used to belong to the militant group, which has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger.

Usman explained to the rehabilitation officers that Boko Haram forced him to join in 2015 as he was working on his farm in Borno state, the center of Boko Haram activities in northeastern Nigeria.

Boko Haram launched a deadly campaign of bombings, abductions and killings in 2009 to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in this West African country.

In 2014, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for abducting 276 girls from a school in Chibok, prompting international outrage and a global social media campaign called #BringBackOur-Girls. Some of the girls escaped or were later released, but more than 100 are still missing. The group also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

After Buhari’s election two years ago on a pledge to eradicate Boko Haram, his military pushed the militants out of their base and forced them on the run.

Boko Haram commander Auwal Ismaela, who played a major role in the Chibok abduction, recently surrendered, confessed to several attacks and gave other useful info about the group.

Even so, Boko Haram has killed 400 people since April, according to a recent Amnesty International report.

Many Nigerians believe most fighters joined under duress. As a result, the government decided to help those who leave the group.

The officers first grill ex-fighters such as Usman to learn vital information about the group’s activities.

Then they begin the rehabilitation process, which includes counseling and vocational classes in tailoring, farming, auto repair and other skills. The aim is to allow them to earn enough so they’re not tempted to go back to Boko Haram.

A de-radicalization camp offers counseling and classes for repentant Boko Haram terrorists in Gombe, Nigeria. ALI ABARE ABUBAKAR

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