The shootings and bombings in Nigeria's northern commercial capital of Kano on 20 January are reckoned to have taken over 170 lives. They followed the established pattern of attacks in northern Nigeria over the past month: a surprise attack on police stations and churches and a strong statement of responsibility claiming to come from a spokesman for the Jama'atu Ahlus Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad, known as locally as Boko Haram (western culture is forbidden).
The scale of the violence, bigger than any other single attack so far, looks like a turning point. Nigerians of all faiths are urging the government to take more determined action.
There is little support in northern Nigeria for massive escalation of the counter-insurgency. Local people are already claiming that the state of emergency in several north-eastern states is alienating communities who fear being caught in crossfire between state security and the Boko Haram's Islamist fighters.
The emergence of Abubukar Shekau as a leader for the group in a well distributed video on the internet and elsewhere – he called for his supporters to attack Christians in the north and to avenge the the killing of Muslims. The killing of an earlier leader of the group – Mohammed Yusuf – in police custody in July 2009 appears to have prompted an intensification of the military campaign.
Yusuf's killing prompted an investigation and some attempt at back channel negotiations mediating between state security and Boko Haram fighters. Little progress has been made because of the lack of clarity on the group's aims. Its push for for a theocratic state, tougher sharia law provisions, the outlawing of the Christian faith and mass attacks on civilians is not a programme that has much appeal.
People want the militia attacks to end and many call for a political strategy. Such demands have differing interpretations: they call for the government to win hearts and minds, to push forward with an economic and social development programme. That may help, but Boko Haram is targeting any government initiative, trying to get the message across that any links with the state or federal government will put the beneficiaries in danger. The modus operandi is similar to Islamist insurgencies elsewhere in Africa and Asia: it tries to drive a wedge between local people and the government institutions.
However, political and religious tolerance are often much more robust than outsiders suggest. The mass action against President Goodluck Jonathan's abolition of the fuel subsidy this month saw an impressive display of solidarity between Muslims and Christians. We hear reports in Kano that Christians were protecting Muslim protestors at prayer when the police were trying to disperse demonstrations.
Last year's attacks – the most spectacular were the bombs at the national police headquarters on 16 June, on the UN headquarters, and churches on Christmas day – have now established a dangerous dynamic according to Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Speaking of a 'dismal watershed' when militia men shoot the faithful in their places of worship, Soyinka has raised alarms about a dangerous cycle of retribution.
National Security Advisor General Andrew Owoye Azazi told me this month that the military and police are getting a grip on the crisis but they have much work to do to win over local people as informants as well as find ways to break up the organisation's cells.
There are inexact parallels between the Boko Haram insurgency and the militant movement in the Niger Delta, Azazi said. Hailing from the Niger Delta, Azazi had a network of contracts across the region and the relative success of the amnesty programme.
The Islamist insurgents have less direct leverage on the economy than the Delta militants who were able to shut down parts of the oil economy. Instead, Boko Haram's strategy is to render swathes of the country ungovernable, which will wreak terrible damage on the economy and portray the government as unable to protect its own people.
Worse still, there are signs of the insurgency spreading in the region. A confidential UN report sent to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released on 18 January says its investigators have established links – and training camps – between Boko Haram militants and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. It points to the growing traffic in arms and drugs across northern Nigeria, southern Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania. So far the closing of Nigeria's borders with its northern neighbours has had little effect. That is partly why so many are calling for a more determined political and intelligence strategy after the horrendous death toll in Kano. President Goodluck Jonathan speaks of a breakthrough – more than ever that's what his security planners need, after almost six months of being on the defensive.