GWOZA HILLS, Nigeria – Two gunmen from Boko Haram kidnapped a Christian teenager, named Haija from Gwoza hills in northeastern Nigeria, at knife-point, forcing her to choose to convert to Islam or die before nearly having her marry one of the insurgents. This marked a new development in the tactical insurgency of the militant Islamist group.
“They were about to slaughter me and one of them begged me not to resist and just before I had my throat slit I relented. They put a veil on me and made me read from the Koran,” she told Reuters in an interview.
Hajja went through the ceremonial conversion and for three months, the 19-year-old was their domestic slave. She was forced to clean and cook meals for the 14 Islamic insurgents led by Ibrahim Tada Nglayike, while also being their porter and made to carry ammunition while the militant insurgents attacked a police outpost.
Boko Haram, moreover, used Haija as a decoy to trap civilian Nigerians working with the military. She was directed to stand in a field near a village to catch the attention of civilians working with the army. Using this method Boko Haram was able to ambush five men who eventually approached her.
“They took them back to a cave and tied them up. They cut their throats, one at a time,” Hajja said. “I thought my heart would burst out of my chest, because I was the bait.”
Hajja was about to be married to one of the insurgents before she successfully hatched an escape plan. She faked having an acute stomachache and went to the hospital where she was able to make her escape.
“I can’t sleep when I think of being there,” said Hajja as she recounted her three-month ordeal.
Michael Yohanna, councilor in Gwoza’s local government, told Reuters that Boko Haram has captured at least a dozen teenagers like Hajja that are still held captive.
The idea of forced marriages with militant insurgents is reminiscent of the same tactics used by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Thousands of women were abducted by the LRA, and forced to marry their commanders during the 20-year war in Uganda before the 1986 truce.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and has been fighting for a separate Islamist state in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north. It initially set up an Islamic school and a mosque, which many of Nigeria’s poor had enrolled. The school soon became a recruiting platform to enlist jihadists for its political agenda. In 2009, the group turned militant and killed thousands of Nigerians, including military personnel and civilians.
President Jonathon Goodluck has declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states since May, but this has not prevented the extremist group from pursuing its radical goals. On September 30, 2013, Boko Haram disguised themselves as military soldiers and opened fire on students from Yobe State College of Agriculture in northern Nigeria, killing 50.
Boko Haram whose name, translated from the local Hausa language, means, “Western education is forbidden.”
According to BBC, Johnnie Carson, US diplomat for Africa, highlighted last year that Boko Haram was exploiting popular discontent in northern Nigeria. He stressed that the Nigerian government must address the political and economic grievances of the predominately Muslim population in the northern region, where most live under chronic poverty levels.
Boko Haram attacked the UN building in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, in August 2011. This signaled to the U.S. a turning point in their activities and the militant group was marked as a threat to U.S. interests. Several analysts, however, viewed the UN bombing as a result of the its close association with the west and the domestic terror organization now regard the UN, U.S. and Nigerian government as common enemies.
While Boko Haram has been largely operating as a domestic terror group in northern Nigeria, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center claims that the Nigerian militant group has contacts with Al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also indicates that AQIM, an Algeria-based Sunni Muslim jihadist group, has provided funding and training to members of Boko Haram.
The recent decision by the United States to classify Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization has evoked varied reactions. Analysts say that this may encourage the domestic terror group to validate their new status by seeking global terror links and recruit foreign jihadists.
“It could also further radicalize the movement and push it to strengthen international linkages with other Islamist groups,” Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigeia analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the BBC.
Northern Nigeria borders the southern edge of the Sahel region of Niger, Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Libya. With the group’s geographic proximity to these extremist hotspots, Boko Haram’s new label would give a broad cover for other extremist groups that spring out from local grievances to adopt a global jihadist outlook.
One such example was al-Shabab in Somalia, which started as a domestic terror group before affiliating itself with al-Qaeda and becoming a magnet for foreign jihadists. The new classification of Boko Haram would likely provide a higher profile and draw jihadists from around the world who want to be part of a terror group that is stridently opposed to the U.S.
Currently, there is no indication that Boko Haram has drawn funds from outside Africa. In fact, the extremist group has been funding itself from local criminal activities.
According to BBC, Justice Minister Mohammed Bello Adoke welcomed news of the U.S. decision and said, “This step will assist this nation to deal with these renegades.”
– Flora Khoo
Sources/Photo: Reuters, BBC: Who are Boko Haram, BBC: Nigeiran Students Living in Fear, BBC: Terror as honour, BBC: US names Boko Haram a Terrorist Group, The Telegraph, U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center