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100 days since schoolgirls’ abduction, what explains Boko Haram’s expanding reach?

July 23, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
It’s been 100 days since nearly 300 young schoolgirls were abducted by Islamist militants from a town in northeastern Nigeria. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on the growing threat that Boko Haram represents in Nigeria and around the globe, and what’s allowed them to expand their reach.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we return to a story that captivated the world’s attention for a time, but has faded from the public eye, the fate of those kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has this update on what has become of them and of the campaign to bring them home.

(SINGING)

MARGARET WARNER: A small, but vocal protest marked the somber anniversary in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It’s been 100 days since nearly 300 young schoolgirls were abducted by Islamist militants from a town in northeastern Nigeria, Chibok.

HADIZA BALA USMAN, Campaign Coordinator, “Bring Back Our Girls”: We call on to the Nigerian government, we call on to the Nigerian military to facilitate a decisive rescue operation.

MARGARET WARNER: No one is sure of the exact number being held today, many seen here in a video from mid-May. Nearly 60 escaped their captors, a strict fundamentalist Islamist group called Boko Haram, its leader, Abubakar Shekau.

ABUBAKAR SHEKAU, Boko Haram (through translator): We are against Western education, and I say stop Western education. I repeat, I took the girls, and I will sell them off. There is a market for selling girls.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, for the first time since the April 14 abductions, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan met with many parents of the kidnapped girls and some who escaped. He and his government have come under withering criticism for their handling of the incident and of Boko Haram.

SARAH MARGON, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch: The government was wildly slow to respond to this particular abduction, and the government’s security forces have been wildly ineffective at both dealing with Boko Haram and protecting the local population.

MARGARET WARNER: Sarah Margon is the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch.

After 100 days, why hasn’t the Nigerian government been able to locate and rescue these missing girls?

SARAH MARGON: It’s our understanding that they actually do know where they are, but because the girls have been broken up into smaller groups, and it’s basically a hostage negotiation, it’s a very dangerous situation.

MARGARET WARNER: This morning by phone, I asked Nigerian government spokesman in Abuja Mike Omeri about that.

MIKE OMERI, Nigerian Government Spokesman: The effort, the energy, the resources, the mobilizing and standing together is towards rescuing these girls. So, repeatedly, officers and ground forces and security services have indicated knowledge of where, knowledge of where these girls might be held.

MARGARET WARNER: But we were told that you know where they are, but it is too risky to try to rescue them, because it’s basically a hostage situation. Is that right? 

MIKE OMERI: Well, this is an asymmetrical war. And the idea here, the efforts, the objective, the goal is to ensure that the girls are rescued alive and well.

MARGARET WARNER: The kidnappings inspired a global campaign, #bringbackourgirls, which raised awareness, but in a video released last week, Boko Haram chief Shekau brazenly mocked the effort, while taunting the president and his military.

ABUBAKAR SHEKAU: Bring back our girls?  Bring back our army. Bring back our army. Jonathan. Jonathan. Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl. Bring back our army.

MARGARET WARNER: The kidnappings are but a symptom of the government’s impotence, as Boko Haram, which aims to establish an Islamist caliphate in Nigeria, is advancing across the mainly Muslim northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

Late last week, its fighters planted their flag in the strategic town of Damboa. And today, it’s believed to be behind bomb blasts in the city of Kaduna. At least 39 were killed, a toll expected to rise. Some of the dead were followers of a Muslim cleric who doesn’t embrace Boko Haram’s hard-line ideology.

All of this is emblematic, says Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, of an organization that has grown in strength and ambition.

J. PETER PHAM, Director, Africa Center, Atlantic Council: Well, the group has metastasized very rapidly in the last two to three years. It’s gone from a violent militant group that did drive-by shootings and lobbed grenades at people it didn’t like to a terrorist group that carried out the first suicide bombings and truck bombings in Nigeria’s history, to now, in the last 12 months, to a group that occupies territory.

MARGARET WARNER: So what explains its ability to expand its area of control?

J. PETER PHAM: I think several factors contribute to it.

One is better training, increasingly, also, the weakness of the Nigerian military. The Nigerian military has been unable or unwilling to fight back. And then, finally, the fear that Boko Haram has managed to stoke in villagers and others leads people to flee before them, rather than putting up resistance.

MARGARET WARNER: And says, Sarah Margon, where the military has fought back, it has done as much to create fertile ground for Boko Haram as deny it.

SARAH MARGON: In part, they have been emboldened by the heavy hand of Nigeria’s security forces. In part, the local community has been pushed towards them because of the heavy hand. And so they have been strengthened. The heavy hand includes extrajudicial killings, rounding up suspects, arresting them, not charging them, sometimes killing them, burning residential structures, looting homes, abusing people.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that the government’s action and the military’s action have actually helped Boko Haram?

SARAH MARGON: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: While government spokesman Omeri says there was initial resentment of the army by local populations, he refutes the charge of abuse.

MIKE OMERI: I wouldn’t admit that, because the armed forces of Nigeria, the constitution and government, has zero tolerance for mistreatment. And wherever any element or act of abuse is noticed, it will be thoroughly investigated and dealt with appropriately.

MARGARET WARNER: But Peter Pham says such assurances fall on deaf ears among many Nigerians, who’ve grown cynical after decades of corruption and economic disparity in this oil-rich country.

J. PETER PHAM: Boko Haram wouldn’t be in the strong position that it is and have the sympathies or at least the tacit acquiescence of considerable segments of the population were it not for the social, political, and economic marginalization that many Nigerians feel, not only because of corruption, but also for lack of inclusion.

MARGARET WARNER: This has bred a regional threat potent enough to prompt the U.S. to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization, and the United Nations to enforce sanctions against it as an al-Qaida-associated group.

Boko Haram’s expanding reach is a threat the U.S. should be worried about, says Pham.

J. PETER PHAM: Boko Haram forms part of an archipelago of extremist groups stretching from North Africa through the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel, and then onward and eastward to unstable areas of East Africa, as well as a linkage to some of the militants fighting in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Another reason that the U.S. hopes the Nigerian government, even while trying to get back the kidnapped girls, also presses on every front against the surging threat Boko Haram represents.