The leader of Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group that kidnapped hundreds of school children in Nigeria six years ago, claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping of students in the northwestern state of Katsina last week.
In an audiotape released Tuesday, Abubakar Shekau said: “Our brothers were behind the kidnapping in Katsina.”
A large group of men armed with AK-47s stormed the government’s science secondary school for boys in Kankara city on Friday night, driving more than 300 students into the surrounding forests.
Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok, in the northeastern state of Borno, in April 2014 and about 100 are still missing. The group has also taken other schoolchildren, as well as thousands of people, through northeastern Nigeria and recently expanded to the northwest of the country.
However, there are doubts about Boko Haram’s direct involvement in the latest mass kidnapping. Shekau’s statement lacked details, and officials in Katsina have already received ransom demands from a group of bandits who, according to witnesses, were responsible.
A Western official working on fighting terrorism in the region said the bandits may have transferred some or all of the kidnapped school children to the extremists in exchange for money, weapons or other resources.
Throughout the Sahel region, there are close relationships between armed criminals, traffickers and Islamist extremists.
More details have emerged about Friday’s attack. Musa Adamu, 18, was sleeping in the school dormitory when he heard gunshots.
“The sound got louder, then I ran and jumped out the window and over the school fence and ran along with many others into the forest. We spent the night there, because we were afraid to go back to school, ”he said.
Another student was unable to flee the initial attack and was mugged.
“Two of the armed men broke into our shelter and asked us to give them our phones. I told them I didn’t have a phone, then they collected our money, then they broke our lockers and took our soaps, skin creams, milk and cookies, ”Hassan Al Bashir said.
“The gunmen started yelling that we should all get out, but as we were going, I slipped away and hid and that’s how I escaped from them.”
Samatu Aliyu was forced to march into the forest by the attackers with hundreds of others, but managed to escape and found his way back to Kankara after 36 hours.
“We walked from that night until morning in the forest without shoes. Most of us had bleeding feet and there was nothing to eat. We just drank muddy water and at some point they left me behind and drove away so I ran and came back alone, ”Aliyu said.
The attack has sparked anger in the rural and largely poor region.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who is from Katsina, condemned the “cowardly … attack on innocent children.”
Jamilu Isah, a resident of Kankara, said the city was “in mourning.”
“Our mothers continue to cry in all parts of the city. People are not happy. We feel like the government has abandoned us … we just want them to bring our boys back, ”he said.
Ransom kidnappings by bandits have become common in much of the Northwest in recent years, with frequent highway ambushes as well as fatal thefts of livestock and food.
Towns near forests that stretch across northwestern Nigeria and into Niger have been the most vulnerable to attack.
According to Amnesty International, 1,126 people were killed by bandits in Nigeria between January and June this year.
While “banditry” encompasses a variety of criminal activities, many of the recent large-scale armed attacks are suspected of being carried out by assailants from the semi-nomadic Fulani community.
The attack in Katsina will put further pressure on Buhari and his government, which have failed to address endemic insecurity in much of Nigeria.
Successive military efforts have failed to destroy Boko Haram and Shekau’s death has been reported on multiple occasions.
“The Buhari administration has not responded to this situation with the urgency, seriousness and tact that it requires. Different military operations have been launched, but it is clear that all of them lack sufficient personnel, skills and funds, “said Bulama Bukarti, an extremism expert and analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.
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