Washington: It has been two weeks since the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram kidnapped up to 191 teenage girls, holding them hostage with total impunity in the Sambisa Forest.
The girls, aged mostly between 16 and 18, haven't been heard from since April 14, the night before their final exam at the Government Girls Secondary School in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Chibok when they woke to the sound of gunmen bashing in windows and setting fire to their classrooms. Within hours, 234 of them were herded into trucks headed for the jungle. As many as 43 managed to escape. Some swung down from trucks in the slow-moving convoy; others ran off when they reached the forest.
The fate of the rest remains unclear. Some of the girls may have been taken to neighbouring countries, the BBC reported on Wednesday, quoting a local leader who said gunmen had been seen crossing with the girls into Cameroon and Chad. Some of the girls had been forced to marry the militants, the leader, Pogo Bitrus, told the news service.
Girls' education campaigner Malala Yousafzai has told the international community not to forget about the girls. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today program, Malala said: "If we forget about these girls it means we are forgetting our own sister, our own people."
Sixteen-year-old Malala, who led a public opposition to the Taliban crackdown on girls' education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, survived an execution attempt by the militant group. She has since become a global spokeswoman for girls' education and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.
She said militants like Boko Haram were "misusing and abusing" the name of Islam. "In Islam it is said by the Prophet education is your duty," she said. "It's the right of every girl and every boy, so there is no discrimination in Islam."
Malala also called on the Nigerian government to take the education of girls seriously, warning a whole generation could be lost. "It's every girls' right to go to school to get [an] eduction and now it's the duty of the government to protect them," she said.
Given Boko Haram's name, which means "Western education forbidden", and their agenda to wipe out secular society in mostly Muslim northern Nigeria, it's hardly a surprise that the group locks students inside schools and sets them on fire. This, to date, is their largest mass abduction. But it is about more than abduction. For Boko Haram, it is about dismantling the fragile existing society by attacking its essential institutions: schools.
With children as their intended victims, Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation of the most vicious order. Since they began in 2002, these militants have grown increasingly aggressive. When I visited their stronghold of Maiduguri in 2007, their members pulled out machetes they called cutlasses and nearly killed a Nigerian reporter, the photographer with whom I was traveling, and me. We escaped only after a courageous local elder got into our car and drove us to safety. Today, the group wouldn't hesitate to kill or to kidnap us.
Boko Haram claims to oppose Western education because it threatens the purity of northern Nigeria's centuries-old Islamic society. Their atrocities mask a legitimate grievance that most of Nigeria's 177 million people share. Despite Nigeria's vast oil wealth, its citizens enjoy few basic government services, including education. Most government schools require tuition fees, and only those with the means to pay can attend. Schooling is as much a symbol of the hope for a prosperous future as it is a practical means to achieve it. These institutions become easy targets for mobs of disenfranchised young men like the members of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram's tactics aren't new. The Taliban targets girls' schools. The echoes in Africa are equally disturbing. In 1996, Joseph Kony, the founder of the Lord's Resistance Army who has since been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, stole 139 schoolgirls from their dormitories at St Mary's College in northern Uganda. A nun, Sister Rachele Fassera, followed the girls into the bush and negotiated the release of all but 30.
Eighteen years later, Kony, who has abducted 30,000 children over two decades, is at large. Despite efforts on behalf of US special operations forces helping African militaries to track him, he is still somewhere between Central African Republic and Sudan with roughly 250 followers who were originally his victims. Stolen from home as children, they too were raped and forced to kill family members and fellow children.
Paradoxically, many of the young members of Boko Haram are also victims. They attack the kind of schools that they never had the chance to attend. Boko Haram's swelling ranks are filled with boys and young men who attended "almajiri" schools, West African madrassas. An estimated 23 million boys and girls in Nigeria alone are educated in these Islamic schools. Unlike Nigeria's government schools, which require payment for tuition, almajiri schooling is free, so even the poorest can attend.
Much like the straggling members of the Lord's Resistance Army, Boko Haram thrives in places where civil society is failing or totally absent. Both thrive in chaos and rely on fear. Menacing and destroying civil society is more than symbolic; it is a practical weapon of insurgency.
Although Kony's disparate band of wayward stragglers poses no strategic threat to the United States, Boko Haram decidedly does. So far, their attacks have been limited to within Nigeria's borders. But that's unlikely to remain so. Already, their ideology, funding, and foot soldiers are bleeding over the border into their northern neighbour, Niger. Boko Haram is already linked to a global network of killers, including offshoots of al-Qaeda. We ignore the fate of these some 190 young women at our peril.