KANO, Nigeria-- A radical Muslim group is threatening to turn parts of Nigeria into an Islamic emirate.
For several years, the group Boko Haram has waged a violent campaign against the government and Nigerian Christians. The sophistication of some of their most recent attacks has many concerned about the group's possible links to international terrorists.
Epicenter of Holy War
About 215 miles from the Nigerian capital of Abuja sits the sprawling city of Kano. It is the epicenter of Boko Haram's "holy war" against the country.
"I would prefer not to talk about Boko Haram's activities here in Kano," said one frightened resident of Kano. "They just make me very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. Everybody is afraid; we are all living in fear."
Kano on Edge
On Jan. 20, more than 100 Boko Haram militants launched their deadliest attack to date. Suicide bombers hit multiple locations in Kano, killing 185 people and injuring many others.
Kano is a city on edge. Police officers and the Nigerian Army are patrolling the streets, setting up numerous checkpoints to try and protect this vulnerable city from future attacks by Boko Haram.
"What this group is doing to our country is terrible," a young man, who asked to remain anonymous, said. "They are killing our people and they want to divide us."
Boko Haram's official name in Arabic means the "People committed to Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."
"This is a faceless enemy," a resident told CBN News. "They don't wear a uniform. They live among us and suddenly attack so we have to be very careful."
A spokesman for the Islamist group says the deadly attacks won't stop until Sharia law rules the country.
Walid Phares, terrorism expert and author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, worries that Nigeria could emerge as a new front for radical Islamists.
"Often in the mainstream media, Boko Haram is presented as a sect as if they had a theology of their own or a small extremist group. That is not the case," Phares told CBN News.
"Boko Haram is a jihadist movement that has the same ideology as all other Salafist jihadist movement as al Qaeda, the Taliban, as al-Shabab," he explained.
"What they want to do is to establish an emirate, an Islamist radical state -- first in the northern part of Nigeria and then push to the south and declare an emirate across Nigeria," Phares said.
Boko Haram's task won't be easy. Nigeria is evenly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in North. Sharia law is already in place across 12 states in the Muslim-majority north.
And while Boko Haram wants to see the Islamic laws more strictly enforced, the group's radical theology has little traction in the south.
"So now the group is trying to spark a religious war by getting Muslims and Christians to fight each other," a young Nigerian from Kano said.
Since 2002 when it was founded, Boko Haram has terrorized Nigerian Christians by attacking their homes, churches, and killing scores of believers.
Warning to Christians, Muslims
Bishop Ransom Bello is a prominent Christian leader in Kano. He's received several death threats from radical Muslims.
The most recent came from Boko Haram warning about an impending attack against churches here.
"My biggest worry is about the security of the Christians in Kano State. I am worried so much about that," Ransom Bello, with the Christian Association of Nigeria, said.
"Because every time they make such promises they fulfill it," he said. "So the apprehension is that one day they will come to attack the churches."
At one of Kano's largest mosques, Imam Abubakar Jibirin used a recent Friday noon gathering to urge followers to remain calm and seek peace.
But in an interview with CBN News following Friday prayers, Imam Jibirin refused to criticize directly or condemn the actions of Boko Haram.
The group has distributed leaflets warning anyone, including Muslims, not to criticize their actions.
"I don't know who these people are, so I can't judge them," Sheikh Jibirin, with Bayero University Mosque, told CBN News.
"I can't tell you if Boko Haram is a Muslim group or not," he said. "I've been telling our people that we should live in peace with one another."
Links to Al Qaeda?
Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 people in some 160 separate attacks since July 2009.
Many of the recent attacks, including the Jan. 20 incident, were far more complex and coordinated than anything linked to Boko Haram before.
"Their bombs are increasingly more sophisticated and more powerful, so this has gone beyond the sort of local radical group," Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said.
That has Nigerian and Western security officials worrying about potential links to international terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
A Nigerian newspaper investigation traced funding for the group's activities to the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, as well as further plans to turn Nigeria into another Afghanistan.
Members have also reportedly met and received training from senior al Qaeda figures in North Africa.
"We've had information and analysis and assessments for the last two to three years that Boko Haram has been in connection with al Qaeda -- al Qaeda mostly of the Maghreb, which is now operating in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, the area known as the Sahel," Phares said.
And now perhaps equally worrying are reports of Boko Haram sympathizers within Nigeria's police, intelligence services, army and judiciary. That's leaving many to worry about the future of Africa's most populous country.
"I see this as a spiritual battle over Nigeria because these issues go beyond economic, beyond politics," Bello said. "Its goes beyond natural things. It's spiritual."
*Published Feb. 21, 2012.