This isn’t a new thing for Islamic extremists in Nigeria:
(WNS)—Deep in the rural regions of northern Nigeria, a group of kidnapped schoolgirls bear names far removed from their condition—names like Comfort, Blessing, Grace, and Glory.
The teenage girls vanished in the early morning hours of April 15, when militants from the Islamist terror group Boko Haram raided a school in the predominantly Christian town of Chibok. The gunmen loaded more than 300 girls onto waiting pickup trucks, and fled into a dense forest.
As many as 50 girls escaped into the woods but reports indicate two of the escaped girls died from snakebites. By mid-May more than 270 schoolgirls—ages 15 to 18—remained missing.
A 16-year-old girl who escaped told the Associated Press the militants first said they were soldiers. But after moving the girls outside, the gunmen set fire to the building. “They started shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great),” the student said. “And we knew.”
For the first two weeks of the girls’ captivity, it seemed as if few others knew about the mass abduction. Agonized parents armed with bows and arrows formed search parties when the Nigerian military failed to act. Government officials claimed they had recovered most of the girls—a claim the school principal and bewildered parents immediately refuted.
Meanwhile, international attention remained fixed on the missing Malaysian airliner that carried 239 people, and the April 16 South Korean ferry disaster that killed at least 187 people, mostly high-school students. For weeks, the plight of more than 200 still-living Nigerian girls barely registered.
Burned school where gunmen abducted more than 200 students. By the third week, the story gained traction, as women’s groups demonstrated in the Nigerian capital. A Twitter hashtag—#BringBackOurGirls—caught on, and a Nigerian petition on Change.org calling for better rescue efforts drew more than 450,000 signatures. By May 6, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. government would send a team of personnel to Nigeria to help the military coordinate search and rescue efforts.
Across town, Ann Buwalda of the Washington, D.C.–based Jubilee Campaign said she was thrilled with the international attention on the girls’ abduction, but she noted that similar atrocities have been happening for years: “How many churches have been blown up, and how many Christians have been killed, and nothing’s happened?”
Indeed, Boko Haram has been waging a brutal campaign to force Islamic law in northern Nigeria for more than a decade. This year marks the deadliest year of the insurgency so far, with as many as 1,500 killed since January. The group has burned churches, razed villages, kidnapped women, and massacred civilians for years. In January, Boko Haram militants barred the doors of a Catholic church, and burned the building with worshippers inside.
The Obama administration barely acknowledges the widespread Christian persecution raging in northern Nigeria. But in a video released on May 5, the leader of Boko Haram boasted he would sell the missing girls as slaves, and repeated the group’s intentions: “It is a Jihad war against Christians and Christianity,” he said with a smile. “Allah says we should finish them when we get them.”
Nigeria advocates say rescuing the Chibok girls is critical, particularly as reports swirl that some of the girls have already been sold into marriage to their captors for the price of $12. But experts also emphasize that a single rescue effort won’t stop more atrocities. If Boko Haram isn’t crushed, says Buwalda, “they’ll do this again. There will be another church. There will be another school.”
There already was another school attack less than eight weeks before the Chibok kidnappings. In a horrific exploit that gained scant international attention, militants stormed the dormitories of a school in Yobe State on Feb. 24.
This time, the gunmen released the girls. Witnesses reported the militants told the young women to go home, get married, and abandon the education the militants called anti-Islamic. The boys fared worse: The militants burned down the school with the boys inside, and shot some who tried to escape. The attack killed at least 50 young men ages 15-20. The local police commissioner reported: “Some of the students’ bodies were burned to ashes.”
A similar attack last September killed 40 students. Less than two weeks before the assault on the young men, militants killed more than 106 civilians in the predominantly Christian village of Izghe.
Boko Haram militants also have killed Muslims in the predominantly Muslim northern region, particularly if they view them as hostile to the group’s extremist efforts. At least 16 of the missing Chibok girls reportedly are Muslim. But Boko Haram’s campaign against Christians dates back to at least 2005, when the group began kidnapping pastors. In 2009, militants beheaded Nigerian pastor George Ojih after he refused to convert to Islam.
The years that followed brought more attacks on government buildings, schools, and churches, and more executions of Christians, particularly men with large families. One widow reported in 2012 that militants had killed her husband and kidnapped her two young daughters. Other widows said gunmen had killed their husbands after asking if they were Christians.