The kidnapping of more than one hundred girls in northeastern Nigeria this week has triggered alarm in the media regarding the Islamist terror group responsible, Boko Haram. While this is one of their most high-profile attacks, the group has kidnapped and slaughtered Christians for years, increasingly becoming a menace to Africa’s largest economy.
This Tuesday, a group of armed militants in the province of Borno entered a school and swept away more than one hundred Christian girls in a raid following a bombing also attributed to Boko Haram. While the Nigerian government initially reported that the girls had been rescued, a Reuters report found that villagers confirmed their girls were still missing and that the Nigerian government had not saved any of their children; instead, several girls had fled their captors successfully. The Nigerian government later retracted their initial claim that most of the girls were safe. At press time, most of the girls were still missing, believed to have been abducted for slave use or as child brides.
While one of the most ambitious plots of Boko Haram’s history, the disregard for the nature of their targets as children and interest in slave labor is nothing new to the group. The group, whose name means “Western education is sin,” functions using archaic rules of engagement to attempt to turn Nigeria into a Muslim nation by any means necessary. Those means in the past have included anything from bombing Christian churches to murdering Christian civilians one village at a time and, yes, kidnapping and converting Christian girls against their will.
As one of a series of radical Islamist networks in Africa, Boko Haram has worked closely with Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda is not monolithic, Boko Haram has worked to provide a “safe haven” to groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African Al Qaeda affiliate, according to US Africa Command head General Carter Ham. General Ham told the BBC that the “linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials that can be quite dangerous.” The ties to outside Islamic groups make Boko Haram not just a threat to Nigeria but to the entire continent.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by a radical Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, who was captured and killed for violent activities in 2009. Yusuf taught followers that any interaction with Western society was forbidden and that a just world required the elimination of Western influences such as Christianity. Despite the elimination of Yusuf, Boko Haram began to resurge that year. Human Rights Watch notes that Boko Haram continued to be a menace to the Nigerian people in 2009, organizing a campaign of terror that “shows a complete and utter disregard for the value of human life.”
Speaking with Breitbart News, Nigerian-American attorney and human rights activist Emmanuel Ogebe explained that the early second wave of Boko Haram attacks appeared targeted towards men. In 2012, he notes, human rights observers “detected that they were actually going and marking up the homes of Christians with graffiti, coming back at night, and killing the men.” After some time, Christian men caught on to the situation and began sleeping outside of their homes at night, leaving Boko Haram members to ambush homes with only women inside, who they could not kill by fatwa. Being a fluid and “resilient” group, the inability to kill men as swiftly as before appears to have triggered a campaign against Nigerian women and a shift in strategy.
Ogebe notes that those following the terror group found that Boko Haram’s tactics changed beginning early last year. Then, the group went on a full assault against Christianity, destroying more than 50 churches in Maidugur, in the province of Borno, and, in a move that defied the alleged morality of the group, targeting women. Boko Haram’s groups began kidnapping Christian girls and women to use for cooking and cleaning and to turn into Muslim brides. One such girl, Hajja, escaped to tell her story and give a glimpse into what the terrorist group does with their kidnapped Christian women. Hajja was used as “bait” to lure Christian men. Sent back to her village, her reappearance after her kidnapping caused many local men to approach her with joy, thinking her free of Boko Haram; the group waited for men to approach her to kill them before her. Hajja says she was not sexually assaulted but taught weapons training after agreeing to convert to Islam. Feigning an illness led the guerrillas to finally leave her in a hospital, from which she could escape them.
Hajja’s story of kidnapping, as this week’s breaking news attests, is not unique. Ogebe, who works with many victims of Boko Haram, told Breitbart News that interviews with survivors of Boko Haram attacks note that the guerrillas killed men but never women, and refused to kill children or the elderly. Ogebe notes the story of one elderly woman who was approached by a Boko Haram militia while traveling with her two sons– both were killed in front of her, but she was allowed to continue her journey.
Similarly, Boko Haram groups appear not to indiscriminately kill young students when attacking Western schools. In one attack last June, survivors noted that the terrorists checked the bodies of young students for signs of puberty. “They made the students line up and strip naked, then they made the ones with pubic hair lie face down on the ground,” one survivor told Reuters, explaining their methods of killing. This, Ogebe told Breitbart News, demonstrates that Boko Haram “have rules of engagement, and they have parameters of who they want to kill.”
This November, the United States officially declared Boko Haram a terrorist group.
The group has appeared emboldened to observers in the past year, in part because of the backlash that the Nigerian government has faced because of their numerous attacks. The need for the Nigerian government to defend itself from claims of incompetence and the lack of access to northern regions controlled by Boko Haram have made it particularly difficult for news on cases such as the schoolgirl abductions to surface beyond official government reports. The media “literally have to rely on statements issued by the military,” Ogebe explains, “you have a situation where telecommunications systems have been shut down in many parts of the northeast by the government.”
Boko Haram themselves have proven adept at mass communication, however– another element to the lethal qualities that make the group a particularly vile threat to freedom and human rights in Africa. The Nigerian government had announced, for example, a ceasefire last year with the militant group– something Boko Haram was quick to deny was possible. “We are going to burn down the schools, if they are not Islamic religious schools for Allah,” Boko Haram leader Abubaker Shekau assured the Nigerian government in a statement last year.
Boko Haram’s rhetoric continues to be as incendiary as their attacks grow in scale. In a statement last month, Shekau reiterated his mission: “killing is my job.” The full statement calls for the murder of anyone that defies Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islam:
I call on all my followers and brethren wherever you are, to rise and take up arms and start killing the vagabond. Kill them, kill them and kill them. Now our religion and our way of worship is nothing but killings, killings and killings! Kill and slaughter but don’t eat them. You should spare the old, women, the lunatic, and the repentant.
That statement served to confirm the veracity of an attack on military barracks in March– one which, shockingly, Boko Haram recorded on video, which made its way to YouTube:
The cruelty, brutality, and unpredictability of the scale of Boko Haram attacks puts Nigeria in dire peril. A country evenly divided by religion, Nigerian Christians must now face the constant fear of being targeted and persecuted by this ultra violent paramilitary group, one that gets little attention on the international scale. While the United Nations has described the group as “increasingly monstrous,” it has not implemented any international legislation to condemn the group, only keeping a death toll that surpassed 1,000 by the end of 2013. The United States is offering $7 million as a reward for finding Shekau, but few leads have surfaced in his location.
Boko Haram’s crimes against humanity will continue until the group’s activities are stunted, either by a miraculous push on the part of the Nigerian government or an international intervention. The group has made it increasingly dangerous to practice Christianity in the nation of Nigeria, an unacceptable state of affairs anywhere in the world. The exposure the terror group is now getting thanks to this latest mass kidnapping makes the situation an impossible one for the world to ignore, and one the international community has a moral imperative to act upon.