DAKAR, Senegal — Boko Haram asserted responsibility Tuesday for laying siege to a secondary school in northwestern Nigeria and abducting more than 300 boys, marking a striking leap from the extremist group's usual area of operation. Hundreds of gunmen on motorbikes surrounded a boarding school in Katsina state Friday night and opened fire on police, witnesses said, before rounding up students and dragging them into the woods.
Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, said in an audio message released in the early hours of the morning that militants stormed the school to discourage “Western education,” according to Nigerian media outlets and researchers who reviewed the recording.
Boko Haram, which roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” has fought since 2009 to rule the country’s northeast with an extreme form of Islam — one that Muslim leaders in the nation condemn. The group has killed more than 36,000 people and displaced millions.
“What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices,” Shekau said in the audio.
The Nigerian president and other officials in Africa’s most populous nation initially blamed bandits for the mass kidnapping. Gangs in the area are known to abduct people for ransom. But Friday’s attack bore the hallmarks of a Boko Haram raid, signaling that Shekau’s reach has shifted nearly 500 miles west.
The Katsina governor told local reporters Tuesday that he had made contact with the abductors but did not provide details. It was unclear whether gang members had participated in the kidnappings.
Shekau — a commander known for bloodthirstiness even among the world’s deadliest extremist organizations — seemed to be sending a message, said Bulama Bukarti, a Boko Haram specialist at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London.
“He wanted to make a big political statement that we are attacking you in the northeast, we are abducting your children in the northeast, and now we are doing it in the northwest,” Bukarti said. “This is a huge announcement — an audacious demonstration of capacity.”
The Science School in the town of Kankara is now empty. More than 800 students studied there before the attack — all boys.
Now they risk being forced into Shekau’s army.
Boko Haram has swollen its ranks over the years by striking towns, kidnapping children and ordering them to join or die. Those who escape often speak of killing people against their will, leaving the children traumatized and subject to state punishment. They tend to face months of military detention after fleeing Boko Haram to return home, as authorities investigate them for signs of loyalty to the group.
The extremists set off international outrage in 2014 after abducting more than 270 girls in the northeastern town of Chibok. Then-first lady Michelle Obama drew attention to the horror with a hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls.
A similar plea surfaced on social media this weekend as parents in Kankara took to the streets in protest, urging Nigerian leaders to rescue their children: #BringBackOurBoys. The state’s governor said 333 remained missing.
The government has shuttered schools across the state, suspending the education of tens of thousands of students, as security forces search for the abducted boys in the region’s dense forests.
Although Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated” in 2015, the group has continued to stage regular attacks, lately on farmers, cutting off crucial food supplies. It has also splintered into two factions.
Boko Haram also claimed responsibility for an attack Saturday about 12 miles from the Nigerian border in the Diffa region of Niger. The ambush on the village of Toumour claimed 28 lives, local officials said. The fighters also torched some 800 dwellings.
One teenager who escaped the attack in Katsina, speaking anonymously because he feared retaliation, told The Washington Post that gunmen struck the campus after dark.
“They split us into groups,” he said, “and led us into different directions in the forest.”
The assailants seemed to be taking orders from someone on the phone, the teenager said, and summoned more men on motorbikes to haul off the boys.
He managed to flee with a classmate when the kidnappers seemed distracted. The pair ran into what he called a good Samaritan on a motorbike, who returned them to Kankara, he said.
“With the way they split us into groups,” he said, “it’s going to be very hard to rescue all of my classmates.”
Boko Haram followed the same strategy with the Chibok girls.
The girls, who had attended a Christian school, were divided up and taken to remote hideouts, where they were forced to convert to Islam and marry fighters. (Girls as young as 9 are “suitable” for marriage, Shekau has said.)
Dozens have been freed over the last four years through government negotiations, activists say, but 112 are believed to remain in captivity.
Ismail Alfa in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report
© The Washington Post 2020