Lawyers walk past police officers standing guard outside a court, that is set to rule on Shi'ite leader Zakzaky's bail application, in Kaduna, Nigeria July 29, 2019.
Lawyers walk past police officers standing guard outside a court, that is set to rule on Shi'ite leader Zakzaky's bail application, in Kaduna, Nigeria July 29, 2019.

ABUJA - Tension between a Nigerian Shi'ite Muslim group and authorities is growing after a court last week granted permission to label the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) a terrorist organization.  Security forces clashed violently with the group as they took to the streets of Abuja this month to call for the release of their leader, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, who authorities have held since deadly clashes in 2015, despite a court order for his release. 

Maimuna Dauda's three children, two daughters and a son, are among more than 350 Shi'ite Muslims killed in the city of Zaria in December 2015.

Nigerian Court’s Labeling Muslim Sect 'Terrorists' Spikes Tensions video player.
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Nigerian Court’s Labeling Muslim Sect 'Terrorists' Spikes Tensions

They were members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, or IMN, and had just returned from school when violence broke out between members of the group and the military as they tried to block a military convoy.

Dauda remembers the military cracked down hard on the IMN, accusing it of trying to kill the Nigerian army chief.

"I got a call from my daughter that the military had shot her in the stomach and her sister in the head and set the leader's house, where they were hiding, on fire. When I called back, I could no longer reach them. They had burned with the building," said Dauda.

FILE - An ambulance and a fire engine set on fire by a Shi'ite group are seen at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja, July 22, 2019.
FILE - An ambulance and a fire engine set on fire by a Shi'ite group are seen at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja, July 22, 2019.

Days later, authorities arrested IMN leader Ibraheem el-Zakzaky and his wife and have detained them ever since, despite court rulings for their release.

Their supporters’ sporadic protests and security crackdowns have left many people dead.

Abdullahi Musa, a media head with the movement, accuses the government of deliberately trying to eliminate their leader.

"This government doesn't want to free Sheik Ibraheem Zakzaky. They want him dead.  As they tried killing him in his house, God did not allow them.  Now, they keep him in their custody," said Musa.

FILE - Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria chant slogans during a march to demand the release of their Nigerian Shi'ite leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, along a street in Abuja, Oct. 31, 2018.
FILE - Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria chant slogans during a march to demand the release of their Nigerian Shi'ite leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, along a street in Abuja, Oct. 31, 2018.

Zakzaky is facing murder charges for the death of a soldier killed in the 2015 clashes.

He founded the IMN in the late 1970s, taking after a revolution in Iran. The group now claims to have over 2 million members.

Director General of Nigeria's National Orientation Agency, Garba Abari, says their confrontation with authorities is a breach of the law.

"They have become like a law unto themselves," he said.  "In Zaria, where their political-spiritual leader used to live, they constituted themselves into serious public nuisances. No responsible government can watch when public order is being breached."

Nigeria's police blame the IMN for the recent escalation in violence.

"We've seen protesters carry out unprovoked attacks on law enforcement officers who are on legitimate national assignment," he said.

A Nigerian court recently granted permission to label the IMN a terrorist organization, further raising tensions with the Shi'ite sect.

The IMN rejected the label, and observers expect further protests, clashes and victims.