* President has launched biggest offensive yet on Islamists
* Cautious optimism over Jonathan's change of tactics
* Islamist fighters know how to regroup, counter-strike
* Development, jobs hold key to long-term peace
By Joe Brock
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, May 26 Nuradin Mohammed used
to resent and fear the troops who swept past his fish stall in
this northeast Nigerian city on the trail of Islamist insurgents
Boko Haram. Now, for the first time, he thinks they may be on
"We are pleased the president has finally recognised our
peril and we pray his plan works," Mohammed said, frying fish by
the roadside as a crowd of young children looked on hungrily and
trucks packed with troops rumbled past.
President Goodluck Jonathan took a gamble when he launched a
big offensive this month on Boko Haram's four-year-old attempt
to establish an Islamic state in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.
The crackdown risks stoking, rather than quashing the
rebellion, but has so far met with a surprising degree of
support in a region that has long accused the oil-rich Christian
south of neglect.
"We felt let down and ignored. We are afraid soldiers will
come bullying the public, which makes people want to join the
Boko Haram, but we hope this time is different," Mohammed said.
Only a few months ago, Jonathan was telling foreign leaders
that Boko Haram was a small problem that would be over soon.
In declaring an emergency on May 14 in Borno, Yobe and
Adawmawa states and ordering thousands of troops and air strikes
on suspected Islamist camps, he said they were "terrorists"
whose "declaration of war" could not go unanswered.
Civilians like Mohammed appear to have had enough of being
caught in the crossfire of a rebellion that has killed thousands
in Africa's No. 1 oil producer and provoked fears of a descent
into chaos in one of the continent's most dynamic economies.
Even usually critical northern governors and elders have
been cautiously supportive of Christian southerner Jonathan's
new firm tactics, which include the offer of an amnesty to any
militants who willingly surrender.
"I now fully understand the strategy: show strength and be
magnanimous at the same time," previously critical northern
opposition politician Alhaji Bashir Tofa told Reuters.
But it will take more than just firmness to win against a
movement that has proved remarkably resilient under the
leadership of Abubakar Shekau, a fiery militant who likes to
make finger-waving Internet videos holding a Kalashnikov.
Ousted from Nigeria's city centres in an earlier crackdown
last year, the Islamists, whose name in the Hausa language means
"Western education is sinful" withdrew to the remote semi-desert
region of the northeast bordering with Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
In this isolated zone, they scared off local officials and
took de facto control of at least 10 out of 27 council areas.
This recalled what happened in 2012 in Mali, where al
Qaeda-allied Islamist rebels seized control of the Sahel
country's Saharan north before taking several cities and towns.
A French military offensive drove them back earlier this year.
In the past two months Boko Haram mounted some of their
boldest attacks to date, including one that killed 55 people.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Jonathan's administration knows that just sending in more
troops will never totally defeat a foe that can hide among the
civilian population, even if that population has been put off by
Boko Haram attacks on churches, universities and markets.
"In some ways youths had more in common with Boko Haram than
soldiers and wealthy politicians," said Borno public servant Ali
Shuwa. Behind him, scrawny goats chew on a rubbish pile.
"But I think people are tired of the fighting."
As with the "surge" of extra U.S. soldiers that former
President George Bush ordered into Iraq in 2007 to prevent the
country disintegrating into ethnic and sectarian bloodshed,
experts say Nigeria's military needs a change of tactics that
will motivate the population to actively cooperate with it.
"The major focus should be on securing the local population.
It is popular legitimacy that will provide the intelligence
necessary to fight insurgents and terrorists," said Kole
Shettima, a Nigerian pro-democracy activist.
Recognising this, Jonathan agreed to free some detained Boko
Haram suspects this week, including all women and children, one
of Boko Haram's top demands. This is a sign he is willing to
take steps towards reconciliation with moderate elements.
It reinforced the message that a panel he set up to try to
establish a dialogue with Boko Haram is sincere.
"This is the most concerted effort yet ... They've hit it
with a big stick and then dangled a carrot in front of them,"
said Peter Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria head of security firm Drum
Cussac. "They now realise the huge task in front of them."
Maiduguri, the once thriving hub of an ancient Islamic
trading route, has been decimated by the conflict. Soldiers
hunch behind sandbag bunkers on streets strewn with rubble from
Traders hang carpets and piles of sandals hopefully outside
corrugated-iron roofed shacks, while young boys peddle oranges
and watermelons from wooden carts. But there are few buyers.
Boko Haram has infiltrated so deeply here that some parents
don't know their children are members. Civilians don't want to
turn against insurgents because informants are often killed.
"It could be him or her watching us," said Ali, a teenage
boy selling jerry cans of fuel, pointing out onto the street.
"People have been killed just on a rumour of informing."
It was in Maiduguri in 2002 that a cleric called Mohammed
Yusuf founded a radical Islamist movement initially tagged
'Nigeria's Taliban', but later nicknamed 'Boko Haram' because of
its virulent opposition to Western influences.
A military crackdown against an uprising by the group in
2009 killed 800 people. This included Yusuf, who died in police
custody, a catalyst for years of reprisals on security forces.
TOUGH MILITARY TASK
Jonathan says he will clamp down on military excesses after
reports of human rights abuses by soldiers in the northeast,
although rights groups and foreign diplomats think these may
continue going unpunished given the secrecy of the operation.
Rights activists say soldiers carry out extra-judicial
killings and torture suspects never face trial.
"We welcome that Jonathan has finally recognised publicly
the abuses but these words must be turned into actions for his
operation to have legitimacy," a western diplomat in Abuja said.
Security sources say Jonathan's army faces a tough task in
defeating resilient Islamist fighters, who have shown their
ability to re-arm and counter-attack and who know the remote
southern fringe of the Sahara better than most soldiers.
A military source in Maiduguri told Reuters they had found
the first days of the latest offensive harder than expected
against "an enemy willing to hide anywhere and do anything".
Boko Haram is not one cohesive group and new independent
splinter-operations are emerging, making negotiations difficult.
The longer this goes one, the costlier it will be, and not
only in human terms. Nigeria spent 700 billion naira ($4.4 bln)
on security in the four months to April, the central bank said.
Porous borders with Chad and Niger have been used to
transport weapons from Libyan and Malian conflict zones and
Western governments are concerned about Boko Haram's increasing
ties with al Qaeda linked groups in the Sahel - a fact which
could draw Nigeria's neighbours further into the conflict.
"Even the U.S. government couldn't contain guerrilla
fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, so do you think we can?"
Sakuria Mohammed, a Borno legislator told Reuters in Maiduguri,
where his mother was kidnapped by Boko Haram this month.
"The fighting is a symptom and therefore the military will
not solve this. We must create jobs, rebuild this once great
region and give youths a better option than Boko Haram."
($1 = 158.2000 Nigerian naira)
(Reporting by Isaac Abrak, Ibrahim Mshelizza and Lanre Ola in
Maiduguri, Tim Cocks in Lagos and Augustine Madu in Kano;
editing by Tim Cocks and Philippa Fletcher)