A new video released on Monday purportedly shows the leader of Boko Haram alongside around half of the girls his group kidnapped from a school in Nigeria just under a month ago, claiming that he his willing to release some of the abducted in exchange for prisoners.
The video, which is approximately 17 minutes long and originally obtained by French news agency AFP, shows more than one hundred girls wearing full length hijabs and several in the back holding a version of the black flag that jihadi groups around the world carry. In the video, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claims that the girls, who were mostly Christian with some Muslims among them, had all converted to Islam. “These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with… we have indeed liberated them,” Shekau said in the video, according to the BBC. “These girls have become Muslims.”
Shekau and Boko Haram first claimed credit for the abduction of nearly three hundred girls from the Government School for Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Chibok, located in Nigeria’s northeast Borno state, last Monday. The latest video, if verified as legitimate, would mark the first time since the girls’ kidnapping on Apr. 14 that Boko Haram has listed demands that would lead to their release. “It is now four years or five years that you arrested our brethren and they are still in prison,” Shekau says in the video, sitting before a green background. “You are doing many things to them. And now you are talking about these girls. We will never release them until after you release our brethren.”
Several of the girls spoke directly to the camera in the video, according to reports, with two saying that they were Christians who had converted to Islam. One of the girls said that they had not been harmed. That all of the girls weren’t present in the latest video lends more credence to the current theory that the girls have been split into several groups, as Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby indicated last week. Two weeks ago, elders in Chibok told reporters that several of the girls had been sold into “marriage” with some of their captors and taken across the border into Chad and Cameroon.
Given his earlier threats to sell all of the girls into slavery, Shekau’s offer to release them in exchange for released prisoners seems to mark a shift in tactics for Boko Haram. The existence of the video itself, a BBC analyst said, is evidence that the terrorist group is responding to the pressure being placed on the Nigerian government in light of the girls’ continued captivity. The video may also be more than it appears on the surface. “Boko Haram video is coded message, confirming informal contact has been made & back channel negotiations may be underway,” CBS host Norah O’Donnell tweet out on Monday, saying a source had passed on that information to CBS News.
While the quality of the video is overall low, several of the girls’ faces can be seen clearly as they speak into the camera, which will likely draw further concern for the fate the girls will face if they escape from captivity. A list of the girls’ names began circulating two weeks ago online, prompting activists and local government officials to warn of the stigma that many will face in traditional Nigerian culture. “Abductions of girls are sometimes interpreted to mean automatic rape, [and] where the identity of these are revealed, they could be stigmatized even after being rescued,” Borno governor’s spokesman Isa Gusau said.
In some instances, however, the girls’ parents have consent to have their names published, as in the case of Mary Dawa, whose 16 year-old daughter is missing. “We are deeply in sorrow,” Dawa told the New York Times. “Every day, I am in deep sorrow. I don’t even feel like eating.” The desperation in Chibok in the face of Boko Haram — which has killed an estimate 1,500 people so far this year — is enough that Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno, told the Times: “Honestly, I am so desperate, if the Americans were to colonize, I say so be it. … Our people are dying like flies.”
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has received more and more criticism as the weeks have passed and the girls remained missing. A report over the weekend from the Associated Press indicates that it took weeks for Jonathan to accept assistance from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and China in the hunt for the kidnapped schoolgirls. And human rights group Amnesty International last week indicated that the Nigerian military had hours of forewarning before the attack but still failed to either prevent it or pursue the abductors immediately after the attack.