MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—Six years after the abduction of 276 schoolgirls ignited the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Nigeria is again reeling from a mass kidnapping, this time of more than 300 boys.
Jihadist group Boko Haram said on Tuesday it had seized students from an all-boys boarding school in Katsina, northwest Nigeria, to punish them for “un-Islamic practices.” Local officials said that 333 of the school’s 800 students were missing and assumed captive, a number that analysts say could mark one of the largest mass kidnappings of schoolchildren in history. Nigerian surveillance aircraft and American drones have been dispatched over the sprawling forest where survivors say the captors forced them to march.
One of the students who escaped the captors—17-year-old Usama Male—said the abduction began just after 10 p.m. on Friday. Dozens of men in military fatigues shooting Kalashnikovs into the air poured into the sand-caked school campus and ordered the entire student body to march into the forest. After almost two days of walking in a hundreds-strong column with no food and little water, he was one of the lucky few who escaped.
“They said they would kill whoever tried to flee, but I positioned myself near the back and waited for a chance to run,” he said, sitting alongside his father, Aminu, in the town of Kankara. “Hundreds of my fellow pupils are still in captivity somewhere in the forest.”
“Only in Nigeria have we seen militants walk into a high school and abduct the whole student body,” said Bulama Bukarti, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change based in London. “The security situation across the north is rapidly deteriorating. An attack on Nigeria’s children is an attack on the country’s future.”
Many of the details around the kidnapping, in a remote agricultural area with poor communication, remain murky, including the true tally of the missing. School authorities said at least 446 students were now with their parents, but that they have been unable to reach scores of families to confirm the boys’ safety because of the poor phone network.
Boko Haram’s claim of responsibility has surprised some analysts, marking a departure from the extremist group’s usual area of operation in the country’s northeast.
“What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam,” said Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader and Africa’s most wanted terrorist, with a $7 million U.S. bounty on his head. “Western education is not the type of education permitted by Allah and his holy Prophet.”
Shekau didn’t give any figures for the number of boys kidnapped in Kankara, but the mass abduction appears to be even larger than Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, which gave rise to the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign and sparked a U.S. military intervention. A new hashtag, #BringBackOurBoys, began to trend in Nigeria as fresh details trickled out. The United Nations has strongly condemned the abductions and called for the children’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
Boarding schools across several northern states have been closed and the governor of Katsina appeared on television in tears. The local government has said that the kidnappers have been in contact to discuss a ransom to release the boys, although Shekau said there were no negotiations.
Nigerian Defense Minister Salihi Magashi confirmed that a search-and-rescue operation was under way and pledged to do everything necessary to ensure the return of the boys.
A Nigerian security official said the military has dispatched surveillance aircraft over the nearby forests, a sprawling area of dense canopy that stretches over four states. The U.S. was also flying a reconnaissance aircraft dispatched from the drone base in Agadez, Niger, to provide intelligence support, the official said.
The attack has sparked shock and anger in the largely poor and rural region close to Nigeria’s border with Niger, which has been beset by mounting insecurity in recent months. Distraught families have converged on the school’s campus in recent days, pleading with the authorities to save the boys.
On Tuesday, the campus was eerily quiet. Students’ belongings were strewn across the dormitory floors; text books, and stray soccer cleats sat next to bags that would have soon been packed for the end-of-year holidays.
The rising tide of violence across northern Nigeria comes amid the government’s faltering strategy to combat a decadelong insurgency that has metastasized into one of the world’s deadliest jihadist campaigns.
The Kankara attack is particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, a native of Katsina, who has repeatedly claimed that Boko Haram and its affiliates have been technically defeated. But since last year, the militants have been advancing, overrunning dozens of smaller military bases and looting weapons. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the period since July 2018 has been deadlier for Nigeria’s security-service personnel than any other time in the decadelong conflict.
Boko Haram’s claim of responsibility comes after a bloody two weeks across the northern frontiers of Africa’s most populous nation. In late November, the group abducted and then slaughtered some 70 farmers in the village of Zamabari in Borno state. Last week, the group killed 28 people and burned 800 homes in a village across the border in southern Niger.
Now, Shekau—the leader of Boko Haram since 2009—has claimed a much bigger prize: a mass kidnapping that could again draw global attention to a conflict that rarely tops media coverage outside of Nigeria.
Shekau, who swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014 and then split from the group in 2016 over theological disputes, has traditionally operated in northeast Nigeria but has been quietly building alliances in northwest for the past year. Nigerian intelligence analysts say the Boko Haram leader has exploited the deteriorating security situation in the region to rebuild old networks and cultivate new alliances with criminal groups. In recent video messages, Shekau has claimed that Boko Haram has cells in the northwest, and appeared to address potential new recruits in the regional Fulani language.
“The growth of Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups’ outreach in northwest Nigeria has pushed Shekau to build combat capability in rural parts of the northwest, co-opting existing bandit groups and utilizing pre-existing contacts in the region,” said Fulan Nasrullah, executive director of the Conflict Studies and Analysis Project at the Global Initiative for Civil Stabilization, a Nigerian think tank focusing on armed conflict. Mr. Nasrullah, who was an adviser to a Swiss-led effort to mediate talks between Boko Haram and the government, added, “From what we know of the details of the kidnap, there are a lot of similarities to the Chibok abduction.”
Shekau directed the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok Government Secondary School in 2014. After three years, 103 were freed in deals brokered by a team of Swiss mediators for a ransom and exchange of Boko Haram prisoners. A total of 112 have never returned home and many are feared to have died in captivity.
The testimony of the survivors of Kankara suggests the kidnap operation was eerily similar to the abduction in Chibok. Mr. Male and other witnesses said that dozens of gunmen on motorcycles surrounded the boarding school and opened fire on police, before rounding up students and telling them they were soldiers—the same technique used in the Chibok abduction.
Mr. Male and hundreds of his fellow students were then told to hand over their phones and walk for hours into the thickening forest without food or water. “At one point they counted us and we were 520 hostages,” he said.
Another student, who refused to give his name for fear of retribution, said that at least two of the captives died during the march.
Mr. Male said he walked for more than 12 hours in bare feet as he had no time to collect his sandals during the abduction. Suffering from anemia, he felt weak and dizzy but the gunmen said anyone who escaped would be killed. In the darkness, he noticed dozens of students had slipped from the crowds and disappeared into the forest.
As the militants ordered the group to rest near a village while they discussed how to avoid being seen, he slipped off and hid under a tree. He sneaked into the forest and reached a nearby village named Zango, where locals helped him home after a 36-hour ordeal.
“I thought I would never see my parents again…I hope I will see my friends,” he said.
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