The world was horrified when the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014. But less coverage has been given to the kidnapping of more than 10,000 boys over the last three years by the terror group and their brutal coercion tactics, forcing children to wage jihad.
The allegations are contained in a stunning investigative report by Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
Shortly after the Chibok schoolgirls were seized, Boko Haram attacked six villages in the nearby mountains and rounded up children there, with little media coverage beyond the Nigerian press.
A few months later, the group captured the town of Damasak, and took 300 students, mostly boys, age 7 to 17. The militants imprisoned them in a school, witnesses told the WSJ. Their parents were held in separate rooms. For months, the children were forced to learn the Quran.
Eventually, Boko Haram ditched the parents and fled with the children.
In the forest outside Maiduguri, Boko Haram ran one of their boot camps for boys. Children as young as 5-years-old learned to handle assault rifles and practice marching. Their weapon instructor was only 15 himself.
“I was terrified if I didn’t do it, they would kill me,” the teen instructor told the WSJ. He was kidnapped by the radical group in 2014 but later escaped.
“What is happening here in northeastern Nigeria is part of a disturbing rise in child jihadism. Young boys and at times girls are being indoctrinated into violent fundamentalism and used as fighters, suicide bombers and spies,” the WSJ noted.
Al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen, Somalia and Mali are also using child soldiers. ISIS has used children in combat, suicide bombings and in execution videos in Iraq and Syria.
The WSJ interviewed 16 young Nigerians who escaped the snare of Boko Haram, along with other witnesses, soldiers, researchers, officials and diplomats in Nigeria and Cameroon, who all paint a deeply disturbing portrait.
The boys were sent into battle, often unarmed, frequently numbed by drugs. Many of the boys were beaten and some died of starvation or thirst.
“They told us, ‘It’s all right for you to kill and slaughter even your parents,’ ” Samiyu, a former captive, told the WSJ. He witnessed a beheading on the first day of his captivity. He said other boys held down the victim.
“They said, ‘This is what you have to do to get to heaven.’ ”