May 5, 2014 -- The leader of an African Islamist group recently declared he planned to sell “in the marketplace” nearly 300 young girls his group kidnapped last month in Nigeria, describing the young students now as “slaves.”
The shocking statement was made in an undated video that appeared to show Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group commonly known as Boko Haram, holding an AK-47, draped in ammunition and speaking as he’s surrounded by his followers.
“They are slaves and I will sell them because I have the market to sell them,” Shekau said in the Hausa language, according to a translation by The Associated Press. "God has commanded me to sell."
The AP reported that Shekau spoke partially in English, asking his viewers, “What do you know about human rights? You’re just claiming human rights (abuses), but you don’t know what that is.”
Members of Boko Haram, which can be loosely translated to mean “Western education is forbidden,” reportedly attacked a school in a remote area in Nigeria’s northeast April 15 and made off with more than 300 young girls. Several managed to escape but according to an “intermediary” who spoke with the AP, at least two have died in captivity. Some 276 girls are believed to still be in captivity. The State Department said today the new video appears to be legitimate.
Boko Haram, formally known as Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah il-Da’awati wal-Jihad, was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization in November 2013, but that wasn’t the group’s initial outlook. According to Bronwyn Bruton, the Deputy Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, the group that would become known as Boko Haram started as a local organization that dealt mainly with local grievances until 2009 when a previous leader was executed.
“The video of his execution was posted online and it prompted a strong backlash by a group of more radical leaders,” Bruton told ABC News.
In the summer of 2010 Shekau took over the group, “expressed solidarity with al Qaeda” and threatened the West, including the U.S. specifically, the National Counterterrorism Center says. The U.S. State Department has offered a $7 million reward for information leading to Shekau’s capture.
Intelligence sources told ABC News that it was with the help, including training and financial aid, from al Qaeda’s north African affiliate AQIM that Boko Haram has been able to conduct a series of deadly attacks in Nigeria in recent years, including a vehicle-bomb attack against United Nations headquarters in Abuja which killed 23 people in August 2011.
The State Department says Boko Haram has been responsible for the death of thousands of people and has conducted many other kidnappings and targeted killings in the past, including cross-border operations in Cameroon. When young girls are kidnapped, such as in this most recent case, Bruton said most will likely be kept by Boko Haram as “sex slaves” who are also made to cook, clean and do other household chores. Others could be sold into sham “marriages” in nearby African countries of Cameroon and Chad.
In January 2012, Shekau released a video directly addressing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, saying that Boko Haram only fights those who fight Muslims.
“What we are doing is an order from Allah, and all that we are doing is in the Book of Allah that we follow,” Shekau said then. “We don’t touch anyone but those, and he who says that he will fight Allah, he must not hesitate in watching what might come from behind.”
Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, told ABC News that Shekau is “both evil and intelligent” and enjoys the attention that comes from painting himself as a madman.
“[Shekau] relishes in this spotlight because he continues to show up on videos and taunt Barack Obama and other world leaders and Nigerian leaders and Islamic leaders,” Zenn said. “He knows that the media around the world is portraying him this way, but it gives him a further pulpit or platform to convey his message in a paradoxical way.”
Though ostensibly aiming for the establishment of a large Islamic state in Africa, Bruton said that Boko Haram’s justification for violence has always been vague and she considers Shekau’s followers to be mostly made up of “rowdy, unemployed, African youth who are looking for a target for their grievances and they’re lashing out at anyone available.”
The State Department’s recently released 2013 Country Report on Terrorism said Nigerian President Jonathan declared a State of Emergency for several Nigerian states in which Boko Haram operates but “despite the drastic measures, BH [Boko Haram] has continued to conduct a spate of attacks…”
“Their atrocities keep getting worse and worse,” Bruton said.
Amnesty International reported that more than 1,500 people were killed in the first three months of 2014 alone “amid fighting between Nigerian security forces and Islamist armed groups.”
Boko Haram is seen by U.S. officials as mostly a regional threat, but in June of 2012 General Carter Ham, the former head of the U.S. military’s AFRICOM said there was evidence that Boko Haram, al-Shabaab in Somalia and AQIM – the last two formal al Qaeda affiliates who have threatened to strike the U.S. -- were sharing money, explosives and guns, and have trained fighters together.
"Each of those three organizations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat," Ham said at the African Centre for Strategic Studies. "What really concerns me is the indications that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts – in other words, to establish a cooperative effort amongst the three most violent organizations.”