By ADAM NOSSITER
DAKAR, Senegal — Hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa and other countries are playing a decisive role in Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.
The Nigerian government has not acknowledged the presence of the mercenaries, but a senior government official in northern Nigeria said the South Africans — camped out in a remote portion of the airport in Maiduguri, the city at the heart of Boko Haram’s uprising — conducted most of their operations at night because “they really don’t want to let people know what is going on.”
He said the mercenaries’ role was crucial, part of a new offensive against Boko Haram after a nearly six-year insurrection. The Nigerian military, under pressure because of a presidential election to be held this month, has recently claimed a string of successes against Boko Haram, boasting about the recapture of a number of towns.
The mercenaries “are in the vanguard in the liberation of some of the communities,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
A senior Western diplomat confirmed that the South Africans were playing “a major operational role,” particularly at night. Equipped with night-vision goggles, the mercenaries “are whacking them in the evening hours,” the diplomat said.
“The next morning the Nigerian Army rolls in and claims success,” the diplomat added.
The mercenaries “are doing the heavy lifting,” said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Another diplomat, also unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter, said he believed the mercenary force was composed of fighters from other countries as well, but mainly South Africa.
For months, parts of Nigeria have been lost to Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group that has stormed into villages, killing civilians at random, abducting women and girls at will, and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee across the northeast.
On Thursday, a spokesman for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, said that his group had accepted Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance, making it an official branch of the Syria-based terrorist group.
The spokesman said that foreign fighters wishing to wage jihad did not need to travel to Syria, but could now help build the Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate in Nigeria.
“Oh Muslims, for this is a new door opened by Allah,” said the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, according to the SITE monitoring group, which tracks jihadist statements.
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The war against Boko Haram has become a regional one as well, with Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin agreeing to contribute troops to an 8,700-member force to fight the militants. According to the senior Nigerian official, Chad’s army was playing a significant role against Boko Haram, having recaptured a number of towns from the militants. But he said the South African mercenaries had also changed the momentum in the military effort.
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“They are on the ground; I have seen them,” he said. “They came in with much more sophisticated equipment than the military. Thanks to their involvement the tide is turning. I believe because of them we will witness a seismic shift.”
Photographs showing white soldiers atop armored vehicles on what appears to be a major road in Maiduguri have been posted in recent days on Nigerian Twitter feeds. A correspondent for The New York Times in Maiduguri identified the location as the Baga Road. The correspondent has seen the South African mercenaries jogging around Maiduguri’s airport, now closed, where they are encamped.
The mercenaries “came in with quite a handful of attack helicopters,” the senior government official in the north said. “They are being used to take out the Boko Haram in the Sambisa area,” the official said, referring to the Sambisa Forest, a 23,000-square-mile area where the Islamists have their principal encampments. After more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped a year ago in an episode that focused worldwide attention on Boko Haram, the girls were thought to have been brought there.
“It’s not the best of options for a nation to compromise her sovereignty by bringing in mercenaries,” the senior official said. “But if talking to the devil is necessary, it’s worth the price.”
Others said that the use of mercenaries by Nigeria raised questions about the weakness of the country’s major institutions, especially the army, hollowed out by years of top-level corruption.
“They are subcontracting the national polity,” said a leading Nigeria scholar, Paul Lubeck of Johns Hopkins University. “It’s the destitution of Nigerian nationalism.”
In Washington, Nigeria’s chief of defense intelligence, Rear Adm. Gabriel E. Okoi, said in an interview on Wednesday that South African contractors had been hired in recent months to help train Nigerian troops. But he said he was unaware of any current or former members of South Africa’s military or security services hired to engage in active fighting against Boko Haram.
South Africa’s apartheid-era military, led by white South Africans, was used domestically to quash the anti-apartheid movement, as well as to fight leftist groups in Mozambique, Angola and other African nations.
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In Nigeria, more than 200 schoolgirls have been held captive since last April. Some background information on the Islamist group that has been trying to topple the country’s government for years.
Video by Natalia V. Osipova on Publish Date May 9, 2014. Photo by Sunday Alamba/Associated Press.
In 1998, South Africa’s black-majority government explicitly barred South Africans from working abroad as mercenaries.
“They’re relics of apartheid,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said of the South African mercenaries in Nigeria. “They love this gung-ho kind of stuff, and they’re good at it.”
A report on his group’s site quotes a “former military intelligence officer” as saying that in Nigeria “most of the gunships” are being piloted by former South African Air Force members, “and they are flying a huge number of sorties, including nocturnal operations, with great success.”
“There is also close involvement at HQ level,” the report said, “assisting in the planning of operations and the coordination/interpretation of the intelligence effort.”
South Africa has issued strong warnings against any mercenary activities in Nigeria, saying that any of its citizens fighting there would be prosecuted upon returning to South Africa.
South African news organizations have carried a number of reports since January about former members of its armed forces traveling to Nigeria. Other news reports have said that mercenaries from former Soviet republics have also been enlisted. One South African contractor said in an email to The New York Times that Ukranian helicopter pilots were among the foreign fighters.
On Wednesday, the death by so-called friendly fire of a South African mercenary in Nigeria was reported by South Africa’s Netwerk24 and Daily Maverick, and there have been several articles in the Nigerian news media in recent weeks on the subject.
Joy Peter, the spokeswoman for South Africa’s Defense Ministry, said that while the government would not confirm the presence of South African mercenaries in Nigeria, it had acknowledged the death of a South African citizen in that country.
“We are disturbed by the death of this one person,” Ms. Peter said. “Unfortunately, they went to Nigeria in their own personal capacity. We’d like to advise that this would serve as a warning to others who are considering engaging in such activities to really think twice and really consider the repercussions.”
Former members of the apartheid-era South African military have a long history of mercenary activity. The best-known group was Executive Outcomes, now defunct, which fought in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola.
In one of the most unusual cases involving mercenaries in Africa, a group that included Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was stopped from overthrowing the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in 2004.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, Norimitsu Onishi from Montreal, and Rukmini Callimachi from Portland, Ore.
A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2015, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Mercenaries Join Fight Against Boko Haram