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Emerging from shadows, leader of radical Islamist sect challenges Nigeria leader amid unrest
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) ' The leader of a radical Islamist sect has challenged the authority of Nigeria's president in an online video, promising more attacks in a nation increasingly overcome by unrest and divided by religion.
The video of Imam Abubakar Shekau cements his leadership in the sect known as Boko Haram. Analysts and diplomats say the sect has fractured over time, with a splinter group responsible for the majority of the assassinations and bombings carried out in its name.
It also exploits the widening mistrust those living in Nigeria's Muslim north feel for a weak federal government run by a Christian president, who has sparked a nationwide strike and protests after removing subsidies that kept gasoline prices low.
"In the end, they said they should kill us. They kill us. They burn our houses. They burn our mosques," Shekau says in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north. "They didn't even leave us. Because of that, we thought, let us protect ourselves as well."
Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa means "Western education is sacrilege," has carried out attacks in Nigeria's northeast and its capital that killed at least 510 people last year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The sect is blamed by the government for killing at least 68 people in the last week alone, as it continues its campaign to impose strict Islamic Shariah law across the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
On Wednesday, suspected Boko Haram gunmen attacked a bus in Yobe state carrying Christian Igbo traders fleeing the north for their homeland in the country's southeast, killing four people, police said. In Adamawa state, authorities said sect members shot to death a police officer.
Shekau took control of the sect after a riot and security crackdown in July 2009 saw Boko Haram's leader and about 700 others killed. Police initially claimed to have killed Shekau during that violence in Nigeria, but he emerged last year in audio and video messages just before Boko Haram began its campaign of violence.
In the 15-minute video uploaded Tuesday to YouTube, Shekau appears relaxed, wearing a camouflage bulletproof vest and sitting between two Kalashnikov rifles. He criticized President Goodluck Jonathan for speaking out about the sect and hints that the group carries much more popular support across Nigeria's arid and impoverished north than what authorities believe.
"All these things you've been seeing happening, it's Allah who has been doing it because you refuse to believe in him and you misuse his religion and because of that, the thing is more than you, Jonathan," Shekau says. You can "meet other people who think what we're doing is good."
Shekau also recites a list of areas where Muslims have been killed in communal violence across Nigeria, then called on the president of an umbrella group of Christians to "repent" for calling on worshippers to defend themselves after Boko Haram began targeting Christians.
"People are talking about us, that we are a disease, a cancer, to people in Nigeria," Shekau says. "But we are not cancer and we are not a disease. And we are not wicked people with a bad habit. If people do not know us, Allah knows us."
While Boko Haram attacks began as drive-by shootings on motorcycles, the sect's assaults have become much more sophisticated over time, including using suicide car bombers. The sect claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 attack on the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria that killed 25 people and wounded more than 100 others. It also carried out attacks that killed at least 42 people in Christmas Day strikes that included the bombing of a Catholic church near Abuja.
The U.S. government believes Boko Haram remains in contact with two al-Qaida-inspired terror groups in Africa, which could account for the increasing complexity of their attacks. The Shekau video also suggests an outside influence, copying the style of other terror groups' messages.
Muslims and Christians largely live in peace, do business with each other and intermarry in Nigeria. However, tension over Boko Haram's attacks have seen mosques attacked in recent weeks. On Tuesday, an angry mob attacked a mosque and school in southwest Nigeria, killing at least five people.
Muslim groups also denounced Boko Haram's violence, though many in the north remain angry over the high unemployment and poverty crushing the region as politicians embezzle billions of dollars of the country's oil revenues. Protests over the April presidential election that saw Jonathan win sparked rioting that left 800 dead across the north.
Associated Press writer Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.