The Mysterious Death in Custody of Boko Haram Leader Habib Bama

Andrew McGregor

June 28, 2012

Habib Bama, who is alleged to have directed numerous bombings in north and central Nigeria,was arrested in the Yobe State town of Damaturu in the early hours of June 21 by members of the Joint Task Force (JTF), an elite Nigerian counterterrorist unit. According to the JTF’s Yobe State commander, Colonel Dahiru Abdulsalam, Bama was picked up while trying to escape after JTF agents were tipped off by local residents (Guardian Nigeria, June 22). According to the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS), Habib Bama (a.k.a. Shuabu Bama, Habib Mamman) is a Kanuri from Borno State and a former private in the Nigerian Army before his dismissal. (Vanguard [Lagos], February 15). The arrest concluded a manhunt for Bama that began on February 15. Before his death in custody, Bama was reported to be providing useful information to JTF interrogators, who said they were “still extracting words from him,” but might move him to Abuja if his condition improved (The Nation [Lagos], June 22; Leadership [Abuja], June 22).

Habib Bama

Nigerian security sources have cited Habib Bama as playing a leading role in a number of especially bloody attacks:

  • Mogadishu Barracks Mammy Market, Abuja – December 31, 2010 (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 6, 2011).
  • Suicide bombing of Police Headquarters in Abuja – June 16, 2011 (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 23, 2011).
  • Suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja – August 26, 2011.
  • Car bomb attack on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, Madalla, Niger State – December 25, 2011.

Various accounts have circulated regarding the manner of Bama’s arrest. One version maintains that the JTF stormed his base in Damaturu on June 21 and engaged Bama and his aides in a gun battle in which Bama was fatally wounded (Daily Trust [Lagos], June 22). Another account suggests that Bama was shopping for food in the market when he was identified by a former army colleague on patrol with his unit. Bama reportedly tried to grab one of the soldier’s weapons but was shot in the leg before four soldiers overpowered him. Two young men who were with Bama reportedly escaped in the confusion (The Nation, June 22). A day later it was reported that the two young men (by now “armed to the teeth”) had been arrested along with Bama and were undergoing interrogation, where they had made “some useful statements” according to the JTF (The Nation, June 23). .

According to another JTF source, Bama was shot in the market “to incapacitate him,” as JTF men were unsure if he and his companions were armed. The latter ran away, while Bama was “given the best of medical treatment to save his life” but died despite the efforts of doctors, though not before “providing some leads for the JTF” (The Nation, June 23).

A further JTF source added that “security agencies were able to interrogate him even while in pain and he was able to respond to some questions… It was unfortunate that Bama died of gunshots. We had planned to fly him to Abuja for the best treatment, but he could not just make it” (The Nation, June 23).

Gunshot wounds to the leg are rarely fatal if medical treatment is received in a timely fashion, making Bama’s subsequent death in JTF custody somewhat unusual. However, a source from the SSS was quoted as saying that “a deliberate decision” was made to deny Bama medical care, a decision made in light of recent difficulties encountered in obtaining convictions for alleged Boko Haram militants in Nigerian courts due to the reluctance of witnesses to testify against the movement ( [Lagos], June 22).

This article first appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.