Hundreds of Boko Haram members stayed at training camps with Malian militants for months in Timbuktu, learning to fix Kalashnikovs and launch shoulder-fired weapons, a report has said.
The Nigerians fled the city into the desert, along with the other militants, days before a French airstrike on January 20, American newspaper Wall Street Journal reported.
A man who said he was hired to cook for the militants said the Boko Haram members trained for about 10 months at what is now a bombed-out customs-police building on Timbuktu's desert fringe, intermingling with a local al Qaeda offshoot called Ansar Dine.
"Every day I saw people coming here, saying they want to sign up," said the man, whose description of the militants' activities matched those offered by four neighbours.
The Wall Street Journal quoted locals as saying that until just a few weeks ago, the bombed-out customs-police building in Timbuktu was one of bustling training centers populated not only by local al Qaeda-linked militants but also by hundreds of Boko Haram members.
Well over 200 Nigerians arrived in Timbuktu in April 2012 in about 300 cars, the cook said, after al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) swept into the city.
Residents said about 50 Boko Haram militants lived and trained at the customs building, and 50 more lived in an annex across a giant sandy lot, while others took up in other abandoned government buildings.
The presence of Nigerian trainees in Mali confirms statements earlier made by authorities that some Boko Haram fighters trained in Mali.
Last year, a senior security chief gave a briefing in which he said Nigeria was going to Mali primarily to uproot the Boko Haram training facilities.
Also, Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Azubuike Ihejirika said last month that Boko Haram received training in Mali, making it imperative for Nigerian troops to join the international campaign to free northern Mali from militants.
Running a war college
The Wall Street Journal report quoted neighbours as saying that in Timbuktu, AQIM ran a sophisticated war college from several abandoned buildings. Judging by locals' accounts of the training, this was where Boko Haram militants gained skills to allow them to expand beyond their typical quick-hit bomb strikes.
On dunes just west of the customs house, Boko Haram fighters fired shoulder-fired arms, the cook and four neighbors said--though it couldn't be determined if they were describing sophisticated rockets or more rudimentary mortars. In its Nigeria attacks, Boko Haram appears not to have used shoulder-mounted weapons.
Within a week of the foreign militants' arrival, the al Qaeda-backed groups began offering jobs to locals. A gunman came to the cook's door, looking for someone fluent in the Hausa language--which the cook had learned in Kumasi, a trading town in Ghana with a large Hausa population. They paid him about N3,000 a day, he said, to cook for Ansar Dine and Boko Haram.
A restaurateur said he sometimes brought tubs of couscous and spaghetti to the training camp, but said the Boko Haram fighters didn't extend much courtesy to locals. "They are extremely rude," said the restaurateur, adding: "They pay whatever price you want."
On a typical day, after rising before dawn to pray and read the Quran, the militants ran five laps around the sand-choked lot, the size of several football fields, said the cook and neighbors who witnessed the exercises. After push-ups in the sand, the militants ate a breakfast of bread and powdered milk.
They then met with specialists, the cook said. He described an arms specialist from Pakistan, who he said taught Boko Haram and Ansar Dine members how to break apart and reassemble assault rifles, over and over again. There was a computer specialist who appeared, to the cook, to be mostly occupied making fliers extolling the fundamentalist cause. A heavy arms specialist who the cook said was from Afghanistan told militants how to breathe steadily when firing a shoulder-mounted rocket.
"Swear to God, every day, new people, they come," said Moulhar Arby, a girl in the earthen-wall house next door to the customs office. "Nobody knows how they come here."
Commanders from Boko Haram and Ansar Dine gave newcomers 4,000 West African CFA, the local equivalent of N1,250, to enlist, the cook said. After training, he said, recruits were given about N4,700--their first taste of money following months of sharing bathrooms with scores of militants.
Days before the French bomb hollowed out the customs building, the Nigerians sneaked away, neighbors said. Every night, a few came back to toggle the lights, these people said, presumably to convey to surveillance planes above that Boko Haram was still in Timbuktu, the report said.