In the two months since Boko Haram fighters kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria, the terror group has taken at least 1,000 lives in what may be the deadliest killing spree by a single terrorist group since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to an NBC News analysis of reports from the region.
While the fate of the 272 girls kidnapped on April 14 remains unknown, Boko Haram has added to its bloodthirsty reputation since the abduction with a string of attacks -- including three that killed more than 100 men, women and children apiece. The pace of the attacks has increased dramatically since the kidnappings, instilling fear not just in the civilian population, but in the Nigerian government and security services as well, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.
"The group's ability to conduct high-casualty attacks has evolved to an unprecedented level, even compared to 2012 when they bombed the U.N. building in Abuja,” said one senior counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This period far surpasses that. The group has learned how to make their tactics more deadly and has expanded their reach beyond the control of security forces."
The worst was an attack last month on two public markets in the towns of Gamboru and Ngala in Borno state that killed more than 300 people. That incident alone was the third-worst terror attack since al Qaeda used hijacked jetliners to attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, trailing only a coordinated string of car bombings targeting Yazidi communities in northern Iraq on Aug. 14, 2007, that left 796 dead, and the school massacre in Beslan, Russia, in 2004, which killed more than 380 people, mostly children.
Boko Haram Continues to Abduct Young Girls
At the same time, the group has continued to abduct young girls, according to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. There have been at least three similar abductions of groups of 10 to 20 girls since the raid on a school in Chibok in which hundreds were snatched. The most recent abduction occurred on Monday, when Boko Haram fighters seized 20 more girls from a village not far from Chibok, loaded them onto trucks and drove away, the official said.
On Thursday, fears that the group could mount massive attacks on World Cup "viewing centers" prompted the government to ban public screenings of games in the northern part of the country. Such centers have been the target of Boko Haram at least twice in the last two months. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has previously preached against football, as soccer is known in Africa, as part of the Islamist group's agenda to impose strict sharia law in northern Nigeria.
Current and former U.S. officials say the killings are not random. Pointing to the assassination of a leading Muslim emir in northern Nigeria last month, they say Boko Haram is systematically eliminating opposition to its plan to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region.
John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said that the attacks have been focused on “eliminating … villages that have opposed Boko Haram, punishing villages who have helped (the) Nigerian JTF (military task force).”
"We often don't know why, but it's not random," he said.
As a result of the bloody campaign, “Boko Haram has cleared a territory the size of Rhode Island of any traditional religious authority and there is no state authority," he said, referring to an area in Borno state in the far northeast of the country along the border with Cameroon.
Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and now an NBC News consultant, said that the abduction of the schoolgirls focused public attention on the group’s cold-blooded ways. But the recent wave of attacks is a dramatic escalation.
"Although the kidnapping of the girls captured the attention of the Twitterverse, nothing has yet slowed Boko Haram's deadly and largely indiscriminate rampage," he said. "The fact is that Boko Haram was murderous long before the kidnapping and it remains so. Equally clear is that defeating the group and eliminating violent extremism in Nigeria is a complex, long-term problem that demands an enduring international coalition working with the Nigerians."
From Car Bombs to Machetes and Chain Saws
Although casualty figures are often impossible to verify because many of the attacks are carried out in remote areas, Boko Haram undoubtedly has inflicted a staggering toll since it began its current rampage, using weapons that range from automatic weapons and car bombs to machetes and chain saws wielded at close range.
On April 14 – the same day the schoolgirls were kidnapped -- Boko Haram fighters carried out a pair of attacks on an open-air bus depot outside Abuja, the nation's capital, one during morning rush, one during evening rush. Those attacks killed 90 people.
The body count continued to climb in the following weeks.
The deadliest attacks occurred on May 7,when 336 people were killed in Gamboru and Ngala; on May 20, in bombings in the city of Jos, hundreds of miles to the southwest, killed 118; and on June 2, when 200-plus were slaughtered in at least three other villages in Borno state.