Their eyes are fearful and nervous. Gazing rigidly at the ground and at their captors, the schoolgirls recite Koranic verses in hesitant voices while dressed in dark full-length Islamic gowns and head scarves.
This video, released on Monday, appears to be the world’s first glimpse of about 100 of the estimated 270 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria last month.
The 17-minute video, if genuine, is the first glimmer of hope for the desperate families of the girls. But it also suggested that Boko Haram has become keenly aware of the propaganda and bargaining power that it has gained from its control over the girls, whose abduction from an isolated school on April 14 has sparked worldwide anger and horror.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, seemed to be revelling in the global spotlight as he preened and gestured theatrically for the video camera. Clutching a Kalashnikov assault rifle and wearing a military-style camouflage uniform, he claimed that most of the girls had converted to Islam, and he suggested that the girls could be freed if the Nigerian government agrees to release his Boko Haram “brothers” who have been imprisoned over the past five years during the northern insurgency.
In the video, some of the teenaged girls said they had converted from Christianity to Islam and had accepted Muslim names. In the background, two girls held a large black flag with Islamic slogans on it. Mr. Shekau again threatened the girls with slavery, claiming that the Koran permits the seizing of slaves. But rather than selling the girls into sexual slavery, as he had earlier warned he could do, the Boko Haram leader now apparently sees them as a weapon in his war against the Nigerian government.
He demanded that hundreds of Boko Haram members should be released from Nigerian prisons in exchange for the kidnapped girls.
“I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured,” Mr. Shekau said in the video.
He said the girls would be treated well, “in the way the Prophet would treat well any infidel he seized.” Some of the girls, questioned on the video, said they had not been mistreated.
Nigerian political leaders are denying that they will negotiate a prisoner swap with Boko Haram, but some analysts suggest that negotiations could yet happen.
Intelligence experts will study the video for clues on where the kidnapped girls are being held – apparently a remote region of bush and scrubland. The hostages seem to have been split up into two or more separate groups, perhaps to make it easier to hide them.
A spokesman for the White House, Jay Carney, said U.S. administration officials are carefully studying the video for potential clues to the location of the girls. They have “no reason to question its authenticity,” he said in Washington. “Our experts are combing … every detail,” he added.
After years of reluctance to accept foreign help in its fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian government has now asked for international assistance. Teams of intelligence and surveillance experts from the United States, Britain, France and Canada have begun to arrive in Nigeria in recent days. The U.S. team includes experts from the Defence and State departments, along with four FBI officials with experience in hostage negotiations.
“I am pleased to say that as we have committed to last week, there are Canadians who have arrived on the ground in Nigeria who are working with the United States and the United Kingdom to work on the freedom of the girls, which is obviously our most pressing priority,” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said on Monday.
China and Israel are also reported to be sharing their satellite imagery and counterterrorism experience with Nigeria. And the Nigerian government said it has deployed two army divisions to search for the girls. France is planning to host a summit on Saturday to discuss the Boko Haram crisis with the U.S., Britain and several West African neighbouring countries. The U.S. has already placed a $7-million (U.S.) bounty on Mr. Shekau’s head last year.