As word spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook that Nigerian militants were preparing to auction off more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls in the name of Islam, a very different Internet network started quietly buzzing too. It is sad that the reaction was muted in the Islamic world; and hardly any government in the Muslim world spoke about the plight of the kidnapped girls.
“Such news is spread to taint the image of the Mujahedeen,” wrote one dubious poster on a web forum used by Islamic militants whose administrator uses a picture of Osama bin Laden. “I have brothers from Africa who are in this group,” attested another, insisting that they were like “the Quran walking the earth.”
Boko Haram, the cult like Nigerian group that carried out the kidnappings, was rejected long ago by mainstream Muslim scholars and Islamist parties around the world for its seemingly senseless cruelty and capricious violence against civilians. But the stunning abduction appeared too much even for fellow militants normally eager to condone terrorist acts against the West and its allies.
“There is news that they attacked a girls’ school!” another astonished poster wrote on the same jihadi forum, suggesting delicately that Boko Haram may perhaps be killing too many noncombatants instead of armed enemies. He prayed that God would “hold them steady to the path” of Islam.
The dismay of fellow jihadists at the innocent targets of Boko Haram’s violence is a reflection of the increasingly far-flung and ideologically disparate networks of Islamist militancy, which now include the remnants of Bin Laden’s puritanical camps, Algerian cigarette smugglers and a brutal Somalian offshoot.
The violence most of the African rebel groups practice makes Al Qaeda look like a bunch of schoolgirls. And Al Qaeda at this point is a brand — and pretty much only a brand — so you have to ask yourself how they are going to deal with the people who are doing things so hideous even the leaders of Al Qaeda are unwilling to condone them.
Boko Haram is in many ways an awkward ally for any of them. Its violence is broader and more casual than Al Qaeda or other jihadist groups. Indeed, its reputation for the mass murder of innocent civilians is strikingly inconsistent with a current push by Al Qaeda’s leaders to avoid such deaths for fear of alienating potential supporters. That was the subject of the dispute that led to Al Qaeda’s recent break with its former affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
What’s more, Boko Haram’s recruits and targets have always been purely local, not international. And the group is centered on a messianic leader who claims to speak with God and demands that its adherents surrender all their possessions to the group, resembling a cult, like Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, more than it does an orthodox Islamist movement.
But Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s affiliates have both overlooked those differences to cultivate an alliance of convenience, papering over disagreements in tactics and values while emphasizing shared principles. They have reaped the propaganda value of association with each other’s deadly exploits, and in limited instances perhaps even trained or collaborated together.
Their partnership demonstrates a centripetal force pulling together even disparate insurgencies against common foes. And Boko Haram now also represents a growing challenge to Al Qaeda as it seeks to cultivate more such affiliates among loosely Muslim or Islamist insurgencies across Africa, almost all of them far more brutally violent than even the acolytes of Bin Laden can accept.
First formed in the early 2000s, Boko Haram grew out of an ultraconservative Islamic movement of well-educated students. The group grew overtly political only later, under the leadership of its charismatic founder, Mohamed Yusuf.
Its nickname in the African language of Hausa, Boko Haram, is usually roughly translated to mean that “deceptive” or “Western” education is “forbidden.” But scholars say that the phrase had a kind of double meaning that was at once religious and social in the context of northern Nigeria.
Western education was available only to a very small elite who typically traveled to British universities and then returned to rule from the capital over the impoverished North, and ending the tyranny of that elite was the main objective of Mr. Yusuf’s movement.
Mr. Yusuf and Boko Haram tapped into growing anger among northern Nigerians at their poverty and lack of opportunity as well as the humiliating abuses of the government’s security forces. At first, even as Boko Haram turned to violent opposition to the government, the group avoided civilian casualties.
They generated a lot of support because they didn’t kill many innocent people.
That changed in July, 2009, after about 70 Boko Haram fighters armed with guns and hand grenades attacked a mosque and police station in the town of Bauchi. About 55 people were killed in the battle.
The next day, Nigerian security forces retaliated with a brutal crackdown that killed more than 700 people, including many innocent bystanders. Security officers paraded Mr. Yusuf before television cameras and then summarily executed him in front of a crowd outside a police station — an episode that the group’s adherents often recall with horror as the decisive moment in their turn to wider violence.
Three weeks later, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — originally an Algerian Islamist insurgency that found advantages in publicly linking itself to Al Qaeda’s infamy — issued a public statement reaching out to Boko Haram in a public expression of brotherly sympathy.
Boko Haram’s remaining members scattered to other African countries, where many scholars argue they would have received a welcome from Al Qaeda affiliates. The Algerian government has said that some of Boko Haram’s fugitive members received training in Algerian camps from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Boko Haram itself eventually circulated video footage that purported to show some of its members training in Somalia with fighters from the Al Qaeda affiliate there, the Shabab.
But whether with help from Al Qaeda or other sponsors, Boko Haram soon returned to Nigeria far more sophisticated and better equipped. In late 2010, under the new leadership of Abubakar Shekau, formerly the group’s second in command, Boko Haram begun staging more lethal attacks.
Instead of throwing hand grenades or gas-bombs, Boko Haram’s fighters began to conduct a campaign of assassinations by gunfire from motorcycles. (The government ultimately banned motorcycles from the areas where they were active.) They also drove pickup trucks mounted with artillery. The vehicles, were traded out of Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.
And Boko Haram became increasingly indiscriminate. Mr. Shekau, the leader who claimed to be in communication with God, said that the sole purpose of its violence was to demonstrate the incapacity of the Nigerian state. Shekau initiated this brutal killing of innocent people.
“The guy is unhinged.”
Mr. Shekau has also continued to express his admiration for Al Qaeda and its ideology. But it remained “an overwhelmingly locally focused group, recruiting locally. To say that it was part of the international Islamist conspiracy distorts things. There is no systematic or strategic connection.
When the leader of the Boko Haram extremist group threatened to sell hundreds of kidnapped Nigerian girls “in the market” in a rambling online video, he was not necessarily making an irrational boast.
Doing just that is entirely possible in parts of Nigeria and elsewhere in the developing world, human rights investigators and researchers of child trafficking, sexual slavery and forced marriage said. However egregious it may sound, in some areas the buying and selling of women and children, particularly young girls, has long been an underlying problem. In Africa in particular, , there has never been a period of time where child slavery didn’t take place.
While the imagery of a slave market conveyed by the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, may have been aimed partly at attracting attention, it is not a stretch of the truth to imagine where you could buy children, sitting and waiting to be sold.
Child trafficking is considered such an insidious problem that the United Nations Human Rights Council has assigned special rapporteurs to investigate it for nearly 25 years.
The last rapporteur, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, a Moroccan pediatrician who specializes in the protection of vulnerable children, said in a report to the council in March 2014 that they were more at risk than ever to sexual slavery. “Millions of girls and boys worldwide are victims of sexual exploitation, even though this issue in recent years has gained increased visibility,” she said.
In a report she issued in December 2013, Dr. Maalla M’jid said that cases of child trafficking represented 27 percent of all detected human trafficking in 2007-10, up from 20 percent in 2003-6, according to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In recent years, the increase has been greater for girls. In Africa and the Middle East, the report said, more than two-thirds of the detected victims of trafficking were children, and globally, trafficking for sexual exploitation represented 58 percent of the total of detected cases.
Rights advocates say many cases go undetected. There were 1.2 million known cases a year of child trafficking globally, and that’s a gross underestimate, because of situations in this context; it’s totally clandestine.
For every 800 victims, one person is convicted, a powerful indicator of why traffickers often operate with impunity. Groups like Boko Haram are functioning in a part of the country where there just doesn’t seem to be any rules.
Rights groups have conducted numerous studies documenting the trafficking of girls and women in Africa, which is often done through deceptive means. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch found networks in Ivory Coast and Nigeria that systematically trafficked in Nigerian women who had thought they were being recruited as apprentice hairdressers or tailors. The report said that many were minors, and that victims “said repeatedly that ‘bad things’ would happen to them or their families if they escaped, but were too afraid to provide further details regarding the precise threats or the person who would hurt them.”
Free the Slaves, a Washington-based advocacy group, documented systematic forced marriage in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a report issued last June, which broke the practice down to four classifications: “marriage by rape, marriage by sale, marriage by kidnapping and child marriage.”
Part of the enforcement problem lay in many victims’ lack of official identities — 230 million children do not have birth certificates, which makes them virtually impossible to trace. This is 2014, and we have the technological capacity and we’re interconnected, and yet we can’t seem to protect our children.
When Boko Haram fanatics attacked a girls’ boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, kidnapping several hundred girls whose only offense was to dream of becoming doctors, teachers or lawyers, the Nigerian authorities’ initial response was to lie.
The military promptly claimed that it had freed 107 of the girls. In fact, it had done nothing, and, the girls’ parents say, it continued to do little for the three weeks since.
Yet if world leaders and the news media dropped the ball, leadership came elsewhere. More than 50 of the kidnapped girls managed to escape the gunmen. Dads armed with nothing more than bows and arrows pursued the kidnappers into the terrifying Sambisa forest, where militants have hide-outs. Women’s rights advocates in Nigeria noisily demanded action, and social media mavens around the world spread word on Twitter, Facebook and online petitions — and a movement grew.
The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, started on Twitter by a Nigerian lawyer, has now been shared more than one million times. A Nigerian started a petition on Change.org, calling for more efforts to find the girls, and more than 450,000 people around the world have signed it.
Nigerian women embarrassed the government by announcing that they would strip off their clothes and march naked into the Sambisa forest to confront the militants and recover the girls.
All this grass-roots activism finally catapulted this news — three weeks later — onto the global agenda. President Obama weighed in this weekand sent a team of security experts to help. Nigeria has offered a $300,000 reward for information about the girls, and the government finally seems to have been embarrassed into making them a priority.
It’s reasonable to be skeptical, for Nigerian officials have been as feckless as Nigerian activists have been brave. According to The Associated Press, a military barracks an hour from the school was alerted to the attack, but troops never showed up.
Then Nigeria’s first lady, Patience Jonathan, accused activists of fabricating the kidnappings. She reportedly had a female protest leader detained.
It’s not clear if this global clamor will succeed, and two girls already have reportedly died of snakebites. But the United States might be of help locating the girls. For example, some reportedly have been taken to an island in Lake Chad. There are few people on the islands (the area all used to be underwater) and limited vegetation, so satellite imagery or reconnaissance aircraft might be able to locate any girls there.
In the past, Nigeria’s army, while reluctant to fight Boko Haram militants directly, has gone after young men it thinks might sympathize with the group — rounding up and sometimes killing them, thus driving more villagers toward Boko Haram. It’s entirely possible that some families that lost a daughter to Boko Haram will now lose a son to the army, but outspoken United States monitoring can help limit atrocities.
All of us can respond more directly. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” is keeping women and girls marginalized; conversely, we can help educate and empower women. Ultimately, the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.
So here’s a challenge.
The fears have been mounting for weeks: that the girls have been sold, married off, spirited across international borders, and perhaps even killed.
The first hint that many of them may still be alive: a video from Boko Haram shows scores of girls, covered from head to toe, stone-faced, somewhere in the pervasive semidesert scrub that covers this arid region.
Boko Haram appears to have seized on the international attention and begun to use the girls as bargaining chips in its war with the Nigerian state.
“These girls will not leave our hands until you release our brothers in your prison,” Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, warns in the video. The video was the first public glimpse of the girls since they were seized on April 14 from the village of Chibok in Nigeria’s far northeast, a region in turmoil for years over an Islamist insurgency.
In the message, Shekau seems almost surprised at the global shock over the mass abduction of schoolgirls, and tries to use it to his advantage. “Just because we kidnapped these young girls, you are making noise?” Shekau says in the video. “You are making so much noise about Chibok, Chibok, Chibok.”
In a previous video message just last week, Shekau had treated the girls more as an ideological prize than a negotiating tactic, calling them slaves and threatening to “sell them in the market.”
He reiterated the group’s longstanding position that “Western education should end,” and warned that, “Girls, you should go and get married.”
But in the latest video, Boko Haram’s demands became more focused on its violent struggle with the Nigerian authorities, saying the girls would not be freed until the release of “our brethren that are held all over Nigeria,” Mr. Shekau said.
At one point, he chuckles, waves a stick at the camera, spits out the word “infidel” in Hausa, the dominant language of Nigeria’s north, and promises to “kidnap even Obama.”
The video offered a fleeting picture of the coerced new life these teenagers, until recently simply high school students who saw their parents every morning, have been thrust into.
The girls chant verses passively. Two hold up the black flag of the Islamists in the background. Three girls are questioned by an off-camera voice. One says she converted to Islam because “Jesus is not the son of God.” Another tells the interviewer in a rote monotone: “I will rebel against my parents. I am grateful to God. I have seen the correct path.”
The interviewer asks if she has been “manhandled,” and she answers, “no.” He asks what she has been eating, and the solemn answer is, rice.
It is unclear whether the Nigerian government, widely criticized for its inability to rescue any of the kidnapped girls, is in negotiations with Boko Haram. A top northern official had engaged the services of an “Australian intermediary” to negotiate with the group.
Adding credence to his assertion, the official noted days before the video was released that the group appeared to be seeking a “prisoner exchange.” A government spokesman stopped short of an outright denial, saying merely that he was “not aware” of “formal” negotiations.
Still, over the five years of the Boko Haram insurgency, reports of negotiations with the group have frequently trickled out of Abuja, with no clear results. The Nigerian government has continued its aggressive, sometimes brutal, counterinsurgency campaign, killing many civilians in the process. Boko Haram has showed little reservation about killing large numbers of civilians, and when it has wanted its prisoners released, it has sometimes simply attacked the prisons where they were held.
Just in March, the government said that Boko Haram carried out an assault on a notorious military detention center where hundreds of suspected extremists were held. Well over 500 people, most of them detainees, were killed in the episode, many by Nigerian security forces.
In this region, where few aspects of civilian life are fully insulated from the violence, schools had been closed for weeks before the mass kidnapping because of other Boko Haram attacks. But the girls had come back to the Chibok government school to take an exam, and were staying overnight. The Islamists overpowered what little police protection the town possessed, and seized more than 300 girls. About 50 were able to flee their captors. Chibok is primarily a Christian village, and Shekau appeared to acknowledge that many of the girls seized were not Muslims. “The girls that have not accepted Islam, they are now gathered in numbers,” he said. “And we treat them well the way the prophet treated the infidels he seized.”
The education commissioner here in Borno state said that he would bring the girls’ parents to the state capital to watch the video on Tuesday, to see if they could identify their daughters. One parent reached in Chibok said that nobody there had seen it because there was no electricity. The chairman of the local government, Bana Lawan, watching the video on Monday said, “this face is familiar to me,” as one of the girls was questioned on the video. But he said it was difficult to identify others because of their extensive clothing.
In the past, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, has remarked that it was not possible to negotiate with the group, suggesting it was too nebulous, erratic and violent an organization to engage with.
Shekau in the video wearing fatigues and cradling a rifle, stares intently into the camera, makes wild threats and seems to glory in the worldwide attention the girls’ kidnapping has brought him. He squints and grins, and at times his voice cracks in excitement at his newfound celebrity.
“I don’t follow international law,” he says, as if mocking the world’s outrage at the abduction of the girls. He adds: “There are many verses in the Quran that allows the seizing of slaves. Abduction of slaves is allowed.”
Nigeria’s military knows the location of nearly 300 girls abducted from school seven weeks ago by Boko Haram extremists, the top commander of the country’s armed forces Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh has said more than once. The assertion is meaningless as the girls continue to remain in possession of Boko Haram and the military is not doing anything.
Air Chief Marshal Badeh, the chief of the defense staff, also said the military would not undertake any rescue attempt that would endanger the lives of the girls.
Air Chief Marshal Badeh spoke to what news agencies described as a supportive crowd of Nigerians in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, as part of what appeared to be an orchestrated campaign by the military to rebut the criticism over its handling of the mass kidnapping of the girls, who were all seized from the remote northeast village of Chibok on April 14 as they were taking school exams.
“We want our girls back,” Air Chief Marshal Badeh was quoted as saying. “I can tell you that our military can and will do it, but where they are held, can we go there with force? Nobody should say the Nigerian military does not know what it is doing. We can’t kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.”
He was further quoted as saying: “The good news for the parents of the girls is that we know where they are, but we cannot tell you. We cannot come and tell you the military secret. Just leave us alone, we are working to get the girls back.”
In a further retort to critics, Air Chief Marshal Badeh said, “Anybody castigating the military, definitely there is something wrong with him.”
At least four countries, including the United States, have joined in the hunt for the girls by providing assistance to the Nigerian military, which has been described privately by Western intelligence agents and diplomats as bumbling and ineffective in the fight against Boko Haram.
In the weeks since the girls were seized, dozens of Nigerians in the group’s northeast regional stronghold have been killed by Boko Haram militants.
There was no corroboration of Air Chief Marshal Badeh’s assertion about the girls’ location from American officials, who have sent drones to survey the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria, a 37,000-square-mile area where the girls are thought to be held captive.
Boko Haram Has Nothing to Do With Islam
The kidnapping of some 200 girls in northern Nigeria has sparked world outrage. It’s a perfect media sensation: exotic locale and remarkably nasty kidnappers from a northern rebel movement, Boko Haram.
I’ve long been a connoisseur of Third World nasties, starting way back in the 60’s with Haiti’s voodoo chief, Papa Doc. Most have been nobodies who achieved instant international prominence by shooting off their mouths, making lurid threats and committing some dramatic outrage.
The latest is Boko Haram’s chief, a certain Abubakar Shekau. This lunatic has become a world bogeyman by kidnapping the school girls, gleefully prancing in front of TV cameras, and vowing to sell them into marital slavery.
Howls of fury erupted from leftist women’s groups in the US, and from President Barack Obama’s liberal warrior women, Susan Rice and UN ambassador Susan Powers. Hillary Clinton lost no time in jumping on this vote-winning issue.
In a truly heartwarming gesture, China says it will send “specialists” to aid the hunt for the missing girls. This is really about China’s race for Africa’s resources and its growing competition there with the US and Europe. The US wants its troops there before the Chinese arrive.
Few people anywhere cared much about the thousands of Afghan villagers just buried alive by a monster mud slide. Even fewer that Boko Haram’s previous rampages in northern Nigeria have killed over 1,500 civilians. Or that the thuggish Nigerian army and police’s brutal reprisals killed thousands of Muslim villagers.
Few outraged westerners knew that stealing girls is a traditional pastime in sub-Saharan Africa and child brides are second only to cattle rustling. There was no understanding in Washington that the tribal chaos and bloodshed now seething in South Sudan is merely a continuation of traditional raiding for cattle and women between rival Dinka and Neuer tribes. Washington failed to take this into account when it engineered the breakup of Sudan to create South Sudan as an oil-rich US vassal state.
American foreign policy reacts to oil and gas as my cats do to catnip. Now, under the pretext of deep concern for the missing schoolgirls, the US and Nigeria’s former colonial master, Britain, are rushing intelligence agents and special forces to this vast nation of 170 million, Africa’s largest.
Faux humanitarian missions are the rage for western intervention in the Third World. Libya and Syria offer vivid recent examples. US special forces are now operating out of Djibouti and Uganda in east Africa, ostensibly hunting fanatics of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a bunch of drug-crazed primitives hiding in dense forests. The US air base in Djibouti is being expanded to accommodate 4,000 military personnel and more attack drones.
Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil and gas producer. Over 40% of its exports go to the United States, supplying 10% of America’s energy needs. Nearby Angola has become another major energy supplier to the US.
Nigeria has important mineral and farming assets. Yet it remains mired in the deepest, shameful poverty. One percent of the population controls all the wealth and steals billions annually. In fact, the UN estimates almost all of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth has been stolen, squandered or stashed in Switzerland. Oil revenues flow directly to the government, then to powerful state governors. The only thing that trickles down to Nigerians is rain.
Northern Nigeria, mostly Muslim, is dirt poor. Oil wealth goes to the better off Christian south. The north’s Hausa and Fulani peoples have bitterly resented the massive theft of the nation’s resources by the more nimble southerners favored by British colonial rule. In fact, Britain was at fault for creating the multi-ethnic mess that is Nigeria, another colonial Frankenstein state, like Iraq or Burma.
Boko Haram’s rampage must be seen in this context, a popular uprising against Nigeria’s limitless government corruption, poverty, and resource theft. Boko uses the idiom of Islam but there is nothing Islamic about it. As in other parts of the Muslim world, reformers call for imposition of Islamic law as an antidote to endemic corruption of governments and courts that has been too often fostered by Western colonialism.
Screaming “Islamic terrorism” won’t defuse Nigeria’s coming explosion. Considered one of the world’s most corrupt nations, Nigeria has to clean up its act – and fast.