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The Terror Behind the Hashtag: Kidnapped Girls Warn World About Boko Haram

WASHINGTON -- The social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls springs from the best of intentions: a grass-roots awareness effort to stoke international outrage about 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, in the northeastern state of Borno.

"Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism. #BringBackOurGirls," tweeted Hillary Clinton on Sunday.

With hashtags and street protests, people around the world and throughout U.S. political and activist circles issued tweets calling the "stolen" girls an "outrage" and a "disgrace," demanding answers while infrequently mentioning the obvious root of the Nigerian families' anguish: Boko Haram. A CNN anchor said Monday the story was not about the abductors, as if it was an isolated school shooting in which the perpetrator's name shouldn't be glorified.

The teenage girls are the canaries in the coal mine, warning a world that just might be ready to listen that Nigeria hardly has the control over al-Qaeda-linked Boko Haram that it claims. The criticized dithering response of the Nigerian government is unfortunately matched by an international response that correctly brands the insurgents as misogynistic and nihilist, but tucks under the rug the world's lack of response to the explosive al-Qaeda threat in North Africa.

Scores of villagers around Lake Chad have witnessed convoys and canoe transportation ferrying  girls to locations in Cameroon and Chad after border weddings with Boko Haram terrorists. The price each of the terrorists paid for a bride was reportedly 2,000 Nigerian Naira: $12.52 in U.S. currency.

It's a shocking example of Boko Haram's brutality, and while the girls' tragedy has managed to get coverage beyond Africa they are, sadly, not the first school viciously attacked by the group dubbed Nigeria's Taliban.

On July 6, 2013, Boko Haram attacked the Yobe State School in Mamundo, killing 42 students and staff. On Sept. 29, 44 students and teachers were slain in a dormitory attack at the College of Agriculture in Gujba, with Boko Haram terrorists opening fire as they slept. On Feb. 25, 43 boys between the ages of 10 and 16 were hacked and shot to death in an attack on a school in Buni Yadi as an undetermined number of female students were kidnapped.

Seminaries are another favorite target of Boko Haram, such as the March attack on the St. Joseph Catholic Minor Seminary School in Maiduguri.

"Our Vice Rector, Fr Joshua Ijah, gathered us in a place and prayed for us and quickly told us we had to flee the school as Boko Haram were coming. Everybody was terrified. What if they intercepted us while running or open fire on us in the bush? Many of us had asked, but there was no time for answer. Our vice just yelled at us saying, ‘Just run for your lives because time is running out. God will protect you,'" a 16-year-old survivor of the attack told Nigeria's Sun newspaper.

Indeed, the barbarian horde wing of al-Qaeda has been plowing across Nigeria, in and out of porous borders, with little resistance and even fewer hashtag campaigns. In March, the Nigerian military said it would not allow Boko Haram to acquire air power, a reassurance to the public that only served to stoke fears that the Qaeda-allied force was seizing airspace. And as the Nigerian government admitted three weeks after a kidnapping that it couldn't track down hundreds of schoolgirls, a chilling picture unfolded of just how out of control terror is in northern Africa.

"I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah," Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video obtained Monday by Agence France-Presse, stressing that the terror group has called for Western education to end and "girls, you should go and get married."

"There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women," he continued in the Hausa-language part of the video.

“Boko Haram’s disgusting announcement shows a criminal disregard for the most fundamental of human rights," Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking co-chairmen Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement. "Sadly, while this event is tragically large in scope, it is neither new to Nigeria nor isolated to that corner of the globe. Human trafficking is a horrific reality faced by more than a million children around the world annually, and we will continue the fight to combat it both at home and abroad.”

Dutch intelligence firm Ultrascan HUMINT, which closely follows Boko Haram, noted in April that the terror group "is not just a local insurgency but a movement with a strong brand name that promises to fight the sin of non-Islamic education."

"A much broader notion, easy to identify with and potentially inspiring Muslims across the globe," the firm added, noting that they're taking the al-Qaeda 2.0 philosophy of "think globally, act locally" to heart. "...Until today the Government has no clue about who, what and where Boko Haram is and it desperately tries to downplay the clear and present danger of Boko Haram."

Indeed, Shekau has repeatedly warned in recent videos that "we are everywhere in your cities."

Last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked what the U.S. was doing to cooperate with Nigeria in battling Boko Haram. "I will have to take the question because I just don’t have information on that today, but I can certainly take the question and provide it to you," he replied. "State Department would have more on it for you."

Today, Carney was more forthcoming, noting "our counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria focuses on information-sharing, on improving Nigeria's forensics and investigative capacity."

"It also stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are protected and respected," he said, underscoring the criticism Washington has heaped on the Nigerian government in the past few years for its counterterrorism operations.

"We are working with the Nigerian government to strengthen its criminal justice system and increase confidence in the government by supporting its efforts to hold those responsible for violence accountable," Carney said. "You know, there are other things, I'm sure, specifics that the State Department can provide to you, but this is an outrage and a tragedy, and we are doing what we can to assist the Nigerian government to support its efforts to find and free the young women who were abducted."

At a press availability Thursday in Addis Ababa, Secretary of State John Kerry said "we will also continue to provide counterterrorism assistance to help Nigerian authorities to develop a comprehensive approach to combat Boko Haram, while at the same time respecting civilians and respecting human rights."

"Let me be clear. The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice," Kerry said Saturday on a visit to Gullele Botanic Park in Ethiopia. "I will tell you, my friends, I have seen this scourge of terror across the planet, and so have you. They don't offer anything except violence. They don't offer a healthcare plan, they don't offer schools. They don't tell you how to build a nation, they don't talk about how they will provide jobs. They just tell people, 'You have to behave the way we tell you to,' and they will punish you if you don't. Our responsibility and the world’s responsibility is to stand up against that kind of nihilism."

The State Department's annual report on international terrorism, released last week, notes that Boko Haram "maintained a high operational tempo" last year, and "has also increasingly crossed Nigerian borders to evade pressure and conduct operations."

"The number and sophistication of BH’s attacks are concerning, and while the group focuses principally on local Nigerian issues and actors, there continue to be reports that it has financial and training links with other violent extremists in the Sahel region."

The Nigerian terrorist organization didn't get much more of a mention in the report, though, except for a key reference to the group's funding from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

At a November House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield admitted that the U.S. doesn't know much about Boko Haram's membership -- anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand, they estimate -- and tried to downplay the religious extremist element of the group's attacks.

“Boko Haram’s activities call our attention not just to violence, but also to poverty and inequality in Nigeria,” she said, adding that the U.S. government is “concerned by reports that some Nigerian security forces have committed gross human rights violations in response to Boko Haram.”

“As they have killed Christians in the name of Islam, they’ve also killed Muslims in the name of Islam,” Thomas-Greenfield added. “While they do have a religious bent to what they do, they are non-discriminating in their attacks on people.”

Justice Department sources told multiple media organizations last week and this week that Attorney General Eric Holder had ordered an intelligence assessment of Boko Haram, in addition to offering FBI help to the Nigerian government in the case of the missing girls. The Obama administration only classified the group as a terrorist organization in November, despite years of attacks since its 2002 founding.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, called it "inexcusable" that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan took nearly three weeks to commit to bringing the schoolgirls home.

“The world has heard the anguish of the Nigerian people, including mothers from across the country, responding to this horrific event. The U.S. stands ready to assist the Nigerian government in locating the girls and the perpetrators, and has offered to do everything possible to bring them home. President Jonathan should accept this assistance immediately, and apply a degree of urgency to this search with the help of U.S. experts," Coons said in a statement Monday. "It is incumbent on the Nigerian government to respond in an effective manner to ongoing acts of terror within its borders."

Coons added that it's taken "far too long for the Nigerian government to effectively combat the threat presented by Boko Haram."

"Thousands of people have been killed in increasingly sophisticated attacks on civilians, government, and police installations over the last three years," the senator added. "…These abductions are just the latest atrocity committed by Boko Haram."