NEW YORK – On January 10, a particularly atrocious terrorist attack was mounted in a bustling market in the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri: a ten-year-old girl detonated an explosive device hidden beneath her dress, killing at least 16 people and injuring dozens of others. The child bomber – who, witnesses claim, was unaware that she was carrying explosives at all – was sent by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.
It was hardly an isolated incident. The next day, two ten-year-old girls with explosives strapped to their bodies carried out a similar attack in the Nigerian town of Potiskum. These attacks came just days after reports started trickling in of what may be Boko Haram’s deadliest terrorist attack yet: the massacre of up to 2,000 people in the town of Baga.
In fact, Boko Haram’s campaign of terror began long ago. The group gained global attention last year, when it abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok; but many of the girls remain missing, and today the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign is all but forgotten. Estimates of the number of people Boko Haram has killed since 2009 range from 4,000 (according to international human-rights groups) to 13,000 (according to the Nigerian government).
The danger that Boko Haram poses cannot be overestimated. In fact, the group increasingly resembles the Lord’s Resistance Army, which wreaked havoc in northern Uganda and South Sudan for decades. Like the LRA, Boko Haram represents a serious threat to regional stability. It already controls large parts of Borno province, which borders Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and its offensive has now spilled into Cameroon, where it recently attacked a military base.
And like the LRA, Boko Haram has become infamous for targeting children, abducting boys and girls as young as seven to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. As part of its recruitment strategy, its members often force the children to kill members of their own families and communities in gruesome ways, to ensure that returning home does not seem like an option.