Kidnapped girls still missing as Boko Haram continues spread of violence

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HARI SREENIVASAN: It has been another violent week in Nigeria. On Monday, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram posed as soldiers sent to protect villagers when they attacked three villages in the northeastern part of the country, killing hundreds. On Wednesday, 45 more were killed by the group after they were gathered in front of a mosque in the village of Bargari.

More than 2,000 people have been killed by the group this year alone and 750,000 driven from their homes. This violence comes as reports that members of the Nigerian military have been found guilty of providing arms and information to the extremist group.

Boko Haram is still holding more than 270 girls kidnapped from their school on April 15th. For the latest we are joined via Skype from Lagos, Nigeria, by Tim Cocks, the chief Nigeria correspondent for Reuters. So let’s start with the status of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan has said that he knows where they are, but there hasn’t yet been any action taken.

TIM COCKS: Well, the government is in a very difficult position because the girls are almost certainly not being kept in one place. And the area where they are is quite a large kind of forest (inaudible) area. The dilemma they face is if they go in to try to rescue them, supposing they can even rescue one group, that the problem they would then face is that that would endanger the lives of the others.

Let’s not forget that it’s a textbook al-Qaida stroke, Islamist tactic, to kill your hostages, if you think they’re about to be freed. This has happened before with western hostages in Nigeria, and the last thing they want is for this to be some kind of bloodbath. That would make them look even worse than things do now. On the other hand, there’s not too much they want to offer them either. There’s talk of money. There’s talk of some kind of a prisoner swap. That was what Boko Haram themselves suggested.

But the government is saying well, if we start releasing them, then we make them stronger. And we need to also think about the people who haven’t yet been killed or kidnapped. It’s a very dangerous group, a very violent group, and they don’t want to be giving them that kind of advantage. So they’re very much between a rock and hard place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, you mentioned that connection to al-Qaida. How strong a connection is there between Boko Haram and al-Qaida? Do they want to be part of it? Are they sanctioned? Are they officially deemed by al-Qaida as a member organization?

TIM COCKS: The al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan has never to my knowledge once even publicly mentioned Boko Haram. It’s not at all clear that Boko Haram do want to be an al-Qaida affiliate. Their behavior isn’t the sort of thing that the current thinking of the leadership would sanction.

Certainly these massive attacks on civilians, seemingly wonton killing of civilians, in large numbers, and a very large proportion of them Muslim civilians as well, is not the kind of thing—in fact al-Qaida’s leadership came out recently to say that they didn’t want too much killing of civilians in Syria. They actually broke away from al-Qaida in Iraq, or what used to be called al-Qaida in Iraq, but now Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant, and they condemned this.

So, the way that they’re going about things is not the kind of thing that the leadership would sanction. It’s not the kind of thing that even the al-Qaida in the Sahara would sanction who themselves, the Mali-based group, or who used to be Mali-based, are very much focused on things that are sanctioned—things like kidnapping westerners, hitting high-valued targets, like the Algerian gas plant in January last year. This just kind of—especially kidnapping girls, I just do not believe that that’s the sort of thing that the leadership would want right now. So I don’t think that they are going to be an al-Qaida affiliate. And I’m not even sure that that interests them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the idea that there have been senior members of the Nigerian military providing assistance or aid to Boko Haram?

TIM COCKS: Well, there’s always been that suspicion that there are some people in the military, because the military much like Nigeria itself, is divided along ethnic and sectarian lines that there has been a degree of collaboration. The military denied that story. They denied that anyone had been court-martialed.

So, the official position is that this hasn’t happened. But there’s always been that suspicion especially amongst soldiers in the field that sometimes they’re ambushed, and the enemy seems to know what their movements are, seems to know what their plans are, and the only explanation for this, for the ability of Boko Haram to ambush them along some of these roads, has been that they are given some kind of advanced warning. But as I’ve said the military are not the most transparent, the Nigerian military, not the most transparent organization at the best of times has never admitted to having this problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Tim Cocks, the chief Nigerian correspondent for Reuters joining us. Thanks so much.

TIM COCKS: Thank you.

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