She was at her high school in Chibok, Nigeria when the Islamist monsters of Boko Haram arrived in April, brandishing their guns and forcing the girls onto trucks for an unknown destination.
Fearing where the trucks would take them, she and a friend jumped off during the trip, scampering into the forest. With her friend injured from the fall, they slept under a tree and then found a shepherd to help them find their way back to their village, where their parents and other relatives were weeping.
She is “Saa,” a pseudonym to protect her family back home, and she’s an escapee from the mass kidnapping that received global attention and inspired the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. She’s also among Nigeria’s mounting numbers of Christians who have been kidnapped, enslaved, forced to convert to Islam or slaughtered. Relaying her horror to a Hudson Institute audience recently, she wore a white headscarf and print dress, spoke in a calm melodic voice, and wept softly as she spoke of her family.
Saa is finishing high school in the United States under an extraordinary program by the Jubilee Campaign, a non-profit organization that “promotes the human rights and religious liberty of ethnic and religious minorities around the world.” That Jubilee is continuing her education in America is particularly noteworthy because that act strikes at the heart of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin.”
Saa’s story reminds us that, with Washington understandably focused on the terrorist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram is pursuing a similarly frightening horror in the heart of Africa and, like the Islamic State group, has threatened to extend it to America. It reminds us as well that, across Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, Christians are facing an all-too-silent genocide at the hands of fundamentalist Islam.
In Nigeria, more than 6 million people have been affected by Boko Haram to date, with 300,000 turned into refugees in Chad, Niger and Cameroon; many hundreds of women and girls kidnapped, enslaved and forced to convert; and an untold number of Christian men executed in Islamic State-like fashion for refusing to convert.
Founded in 2002 by the Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram is now a network of Islamist militant groups that operate mostly in northern Nigeria – though it threatens to extend its fight into southern Nigeria and, in fact, has carried out some attacks both there and in nearby Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The group seeks to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, a nation with a long Christian heritage, and it has engaged in fierce battles with the government and police.
Since 2010, when Abubakar Shekau assumed its leadership, the group has carried out some 1,000 attacks, killed nearly 10,000 people, and mostly targeted political and religious leaders, churches, schools, government buildings, beer halls and border posts, according to the online World Almanac of Islamism. With safe havens in the Nigeria-Cameroon border areas, it recruits and trains militants and holds hostages for ransom.
Among many headlines this month, the BBC reported that Boko Haram was likely behind an attack at a teacher training school in Kano, Nigeria that left 15 dead and 34 injured; and Al-Jazeera reported that it seized the strategic town of Bama in Nigeria’s northeast, prompting fears that it could take over the entire region.
In her visit to the Hudson Institute, Saa was accompanied by Emmanuel Ogebe, an international human rights lawyer and Jubilee’s special counsel on Nigeria. He’s seeking more aid from the United Nations, the United States and Nigeria itself to help end the slaughter, and his appeal is both humanitarian and practical.
“I know that we can feel that it is not our concern,” he told an audience of perhaps 50 reporters and others. “But it is our concern because when 9/11 happened, none of us could have thought that a dozen men could come and take the lives of 2,500 people.” Nor, he added, could anyone in Nigeria have imagined that a few hundred Boko Haram fighters would conquer one town of 10,000 people after another.
In essence, whether on the front lines in Africa or far away in America, we’re all vulnerable to violent Islamism.
Here’s a passage about Boko Haram from the World Almanac of Islamism that brings the issue home: “Boko Haram has … established funding, training, recruiting and logistical networks with other Islamist groups in Africa (particularly in northern Mali and Somalia), has threatened to attack the West, particularly the United States, and has connections not only to al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa but also is known to have received messages from Osama bin Laden.”
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.