The Christian aid organization Open Doors warned on Wednesday that mounting reports from Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon suggest that the jihadist organization Boko Haram is taking advantage of governments struggling to contain the Chinese coronavirus to expand their violent attacks.
Boko Haram originated in northeastern Borno state, Nigeria, and has for years plagued the region with suicide attacks, kidnappings, village raids, and other acts of terrorism. The Open Doors report follows a string of attacks in late March and early April, and a series of assurances from the Nigerian government that Boko Haram is close to total defeat.
The government of President Muhammadu Buhari first declared victory over Boko Haram in 2015, the year Buhari was elected. More recently, Buhari’s officials have claimed that Boko Haram no longer exists as it did in 2015, but has evolved into the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and that this is the only clear jihadist threat to Borno.
Boko Haram renamed itself “ISWAP” in April 2015.
In past years, jihadist groups such as Boko Haram have escalated their attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Thursday evening.
“Boko Haram and its splinter groups are opportunistically expanding into the void of governance left when all attention and resources are focused on containing the coronavirus,” David Curry, the CEO of Open Doors, said in a press statement on Wednesday. “We are already seeing the geographic spread of religiously-motivated violent attacks, from Nigeria into Burkina Faso and, most recently, Chad.”
“Boko Haram wants an ISIS-like caliphate and weak regional governments are looking the other way. We can’t remain silent while this persists,” Curry said. “We should consider this a precursor for the eventual spread of targeted attacks against Christians throughout the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re calling on Christians to mobilize support for those affected, today and in the days to come.”
Curry added in remarks to Breitbart News that Open Doors expects that more violence against Christians in the region is possible in the near future.
“While millions of people peacefully celebrate Ramadan, small factions of extremists perpetuate attacks during this time, due in part to a seasonal increase of religious fervor. Christians especially can be targeted when they do not observe Ramadan rituals,” Curry told Breitbart News. “Based on the recent influx of attacks in Nigeria and neighboring countries, we believe that extremists are taking advantage of the opportunity to carry out attacks while governments are distracted by efforts to contain the Coronavirus.”
“We expect heightened tensions to continue in the coming months, so it’s important for all people of faith to be thoughtful and prayerful for religious minorities who are suffering, today and everyday,” Curry concluded.
Nigeria has, at press time, documented 873 cases of Chinese coronavirus and 28 deaths. As it boasts minimal resources to test individuals, particularly in remote areas, these numbers may be significantly deflated. In Kano, northwest Nigeria, locals have reported as many as 150 unexplained deaths, but no access to tests to confirm if they were coronavirus patients.
Late March saw an escalation of Boko Haram attacks, including a March 22 attack that resulted in the deaths of 92 Chadian soldiers. Another 50 Nigerian soldiers died in an attack the next day.
Throughout early April, Boko Haram conducted at least one suicide bombing in Cameroon – targeting a primary school – and a village raid in northeast Nigeria. Village raids typically feature jihadists burning down the homes of locals, ransacking shops and other businesses, looting, kidnapping young women and girls, and killing the men in the village.
Open Doors cited a partner in the region identified as Suleimani M., who observed, “In the midst of the coronavirus situation, the attacks on Christians have not stopped. Just last week, two villages in northern Nigeria were attacked and people were killed. A number of villages were also attacked in Kaduna. Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc.”
The Council on Foreign Relations noted that audio claiming to be of the head of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, surfaced last week asserting that the Chinese coronavirus does not affect Muslims.
“We pray five times a day, we pray Jummu’a, we sleep with our families, we hug, we shake hands, we are fine, fine fine,” the voice claiming to be Shekau said. “We have anti-virus while you are infected with the coronavirus, we have anti-coronavirus; it is the Allah we worship. We pray, we slash fornicators, we cut hands [chop hands off].”
The question of whether Shekau himself approved of pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, and if he controls most of the jihadists identified with Boko Haram, has been a matter of contention for years. Nigerian officials claim that ISWAP is a splinter group inspired to follow late “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and that Shekau does not control them.
Nigerian government and military officials have indicated contrary conditions on the ground in the fight against the jihadist group.
“Major General John Enenche, Coordinator, Defence Media Operations said yesterday that scores of Boko Haram terrorists have been surrendering in the past 48 hours, sensing that doom loomed for them,” Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper reported on April 18, the day after the Council of Foreign Relations reported on the contents of the alleged Shekau audio. “Their leader, Abubakar Shekau, was said to be making frantic efforts to seek a soft landing as he prepares to surrender, the military said.”
“I think the end of Boko Haram is coming close as Abubakar Shekau has been making overtures through proxies for a soft landing for him to surrender to the Nigerian authorities,” Vanguard reported, citing the quote to “sources … familiar with the goings on.”
On Sunday, Premium Times, another Nigerian newspaper, cited the military as announcing the death of 105 Boko Haram jihadists.
Nigerian military sources told Vanguard on Monday that Boko Haram was so weak that its members were fighting fully armed soldiers by hurling stones at them, a report at odds with the large death tolls of Boko Haram attacks in late March.
The reports did not mention the Shekau video, nor did the sources attempt to explain why the operations were necessary if Boko Haram had been defeated in 2015.