Is Nigeria Winning the Battle Against Boko Haram?

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Sunday Alamba / AP

Vigilantes man a checkpoint against Boko Haram in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Aug. 7, 2013

Militants in Nigeria’s northeastern region donned army uniforms on Sunday morning and set up fake checkpoints along a main highway, where they stopped motorists, forced them out of their vehicles, and then shot or hacked them to death. They killed 19 people, the BBC reports. It’s the latest attack attributed to the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (the group hasn’t commented on Sunday’s violence), whose extremist battle against the Nigerian state has killed nearly 2,000 people since 2011. Last month, a Boko Haram raid on an agricultural college — an academic institution deemed anathema to the group’s fundamentalist values — left up to 50 students dead.

(MORE: Inside Nigeria’s Risky War With Boko Haram)

But in a sign of shifting momentum, Boko Haram’s recent attacks have largely been relegated to the countryside, the New York Times reports. Today the regional capital city of Maiduguri, a birthplace of the group and the epicenter of its activities, is devoid of Boko Haram fighters. There hasn’t been a shooting or bombing in the city of more than a million in months.

Boko Haram, roughly translated as “Western education is forbidden,” was founded in 2003 and has fought — violently since 2009 — for a separate Islamist state in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north. International onlookers fear that Boko Haram could link up with al-Qaeda’s North African wing or Somalia’s al-Shabab, the group behind last month’s massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. In Nigeria, it has proved equally merciless in its attacks, including a daylong rampage last month on a roadway about 64 km out of Maiduguri that left 150 people dead.

The government’s four-year counterinsurgency effort was re-energized in May when President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the region. But the state’s methods have been brutal and largely ineffective, drawing criticism from human-rights groups that say government troops have indiscriminately detained and killed civilians — and spawning rumors that the political elite have financial interests in the terrorist group’s existence.

(MORE: After Attack, Boko Haram Leader Taunts Obama)

In its place, a group of fed-up locals led the charge to expel Boko Haram from Maiduguri, the Times reports. A network of vigilantes has used its local know-how and ties to the group — some of the network’s members are former Boko Haram members — to identify militants and hand them over to the government. The local governor now pays members of the Civilian Joint Task Force $100 a month for “training.”

“People will run away from me because I am catching the Boko Haram,” said the network’s founder, Baba Lawal Ja’faar, a 32-year-old former car and sheep salesman.

Ja’faar’s neighborhood is riddled with bullet holes, the legacy of battles with the Islamists in which, for now, the locals have prevailed. But he told the Times that he still keeps “plenty of magic” on him, including 30 charms, for protection.