“Bring back our girls” is the plea of hundreds of bereaved Nigerian parents terrified that their daughters—two hundred sixty-six schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist organization and believed to be held in the twenty-three thousand wild acres of the Sambisa Forest of northern Nigeria will be sold to slavery—if they haven’t already been spirited out of the country.
“I abducted your girls,” Abubakar Shekau, the clandestine religious leader of Boko Haram, an Arabic speaker and Islamic scholar, taunted parents and authorities alike in an hour-long video that opens with fighters shooting guns into the air and shouting “Allahu akbar!” “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace,” he continues. Shekau’s vow to sell them into slavery is not an idle threat given that trafficked Nigerian girls, forced into prostitution, have previously shown up as far abroad as European brothels.
Boko Haram was formed in the city of Maidurguri, Nigeria in 2002, by the charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf who originally named the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But locals quickly dubbed it Boko Haram—loosely translated from the local Hausa language to, “Western education is forbidden”.
“Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors” is one of the Islamic scriptures claimed by Boko Haram, a militant jihadi group that is attempting to violently overtake Nigeria to create an Islamic state. Boko Haram forbids its Muslim followers to take part in anything that is seen as part of Western society. That includes voting in elections, wearing western clothes or receiving a Western education. And critics of the group—Muslim and Christians alike—are silenced in drive-by assassinations carried out on motorbikes. The group has been responsible for the drive by assassinations of political leaders, police, and clergy. They have also exploded bombs throughout northern Nigeria attacking military barracks, police headquarters and the UN headquarters in the capital. They are also responsible for ruthless attacks on entire villages—razing and burning homes to the ground and killing all the inhabitants and now they have begun killing and abducting students.
What forces empower such a ruthless organization? For starters, Mohammed Yusef, Boko Haram’s founder, understood the socio-cultural forces of disillusionment at play among his impoverished countrymen—particularly Muslims who were unhappy with westernized forms of education. When he founded Boko Haram, Yusuf cleverly also founded a mosque and Islamic school in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters. His aim was to capitalize on long-standing resistance by Nigerian Muslim families to send their children to government run “western education” schools. In a common tactic he understood that through offering Islamic education he could seduce young people into being educated under his tutelage. His goal was to rise up and indoctrinate an army of committed youth to oppose the existing rule and ultimately create an Islamic state. Looking to other African uprisings he likely also understood the power of child soldiers. And like many other followers of al Qaeda ideologies, Yusuf harked back to “better days” and was longing for the idealized Sokoto caliphate, which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon, but fell under British control in 1903.
Yusuf’s long awaited uprising began in 2009 when Boko Haram militants attacked police stations and government buildings in Maiduguri. Shoot-outs commenced and hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were arrested while thousands fled the city. Ultimately, Yusuf was killed and his body was shown on state television, as the government declared that Boko Haram finished. That was 2009.
But like many victorious statements made against terrorists, this claim would prove premature. Boko Haram supporters reassembled in 2010 and forcibly freed hundreds of their cadres from prison and have since launched an even fiercer campaign of terrorism upon the people and government of Nigeria—most recently kidnapping hundreds of girls from their schools and homes.
The U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism, issued last month, estimates the group membership at hundreds to a few thousand, but warned that “the number and sophistication of BH’s attacks are concerning” and that their activities had spilled over Nigeria’s borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. According to the report, Boko Haram, like many al Qaeda affiliates, funds itself mainly through bank robberies and other related criminal activities including kidnapping for ransom.
In 2011, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence cited Boko Haram as an “emerging threat” to the United States. The UN echoed that concern in a 2012 report that cited regional officials claiming that “Boko Haram had established links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” and that “some of its members from Nigeria and Chad had received training in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in Mali during the summer of 2011.” General Ham, head of the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Command, also confirmed collaboration among these terrorist groups.
Abubakar Shekau, the group’s current leader hides from public contact and communicates clandestinely with his followers. Shekau is known to be particularly brutal. “I enjoy killing anyone that Allah commands me to kill — the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams,” Shekau declaed after an attack in Kano, Nigeria that killed one hundred eighty. Last week the group attacked the town of Gamboru Ngala on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon killing three hundred residents. In that attack the terrorists set homes and shops on fire and shot at anyone trying to escape.
So far, this year over one thousand five hundred people—both Muslims and Christians—were killed by Boko Haram, and thousands more were killed during the group’s five year history. The group claims that Western influences are corrupting to Muslims and their aim is to create an Islamic state imposing sharia law on the country of one hundred and seventy million, where half the population is Christian.
What is the answer to Boko Haram? When one looks at the reasons for it’s origins some go back to cultural tensions over westernization, but like many hot spots for terrorism—the inequalities and corruption that are rife in Nigeria most likely play the central role. Nigeria is an oil and mineral rich country. Yet, according to UN reports, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world with stark poverty especially endemic in the northern regions where Boko Haram has found its following. Until the government of Nigeria addresses the glaring issues of inequality, corruption and poverty and proposes an educational system that is also attractive to Muslims, groups like Boko Haram will likely continue to find supporters for their violent and extremist messages. Disillusioned and beaten down populations often fall prey to the wild claims for a utopian future proposed by insurgents and terrorists.
Although perhaps in February when Boko Haram slaughtered fifty teenage boys, burning some alive, at a college in northeastern Nigeria and now in April when they abducted hundreds of school girls—the population may be seeing that this is not a group likely to bring any real hopes of justice or equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. They are simply forces of death and destruction wrapped up in a distorted and hijacked version of Islam that advocates violent overthrow of corrupt governments with no clear path of ever achieving its goals.
While Shekau continues to taunt the impotent Nigerian government officials—he threatens to sell and marry off girls as young as nine years old—the abducted Nigerian girls await their fates. Thankfully, the U.S. government has offered, and the Nigerian government accepted, a team of military and law enforcement, hostage negotiating and psychological experts to help recover the girls. Let’s hope these girls find their deliverance sooner, rather than later.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School, forensic expert, researcher, public speaker and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world.