CALABAR, Nigeria—When Abu Musab al-Barnawi announced in 2016 that he had taken over the infamous Boko Haram organization in the name of the so-called Islamic State, his first message as the group’s leader was clear and concise: On his watch, it would be targeting Western charity organizations.
He claimed they “strongly seek to Christianize the society.” As such, he said, they “exploit the condition of those who are displaced under the raging war, providing them with food and shelter and then Christianizing their children.”
What al-Barnawi didn't say then was that the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP as he wants Boko Haram to be known, was going to target women working for these charities by abducting them, demanding ransom for their release, and executing them when the group’s demands were not met.
As a result, over the last few weeks and days we have seen a tragedy unfold that was set in motion almost eight months ago.
AT ABOUT 7 P.M. LOCAL TIME on March 1, al-Barnawi’s men—moving on motorcycles and in technicals, pickup trucks mounted with machine-guns—stormed the northeastern Nigeria town of Rann, where tens of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are seeking shelter. The fighters quickly moved to a camp where there were many people from international organizations, and opened fire on aid workers, killing two people from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) who were deployed to Rann as camp managers, and a medical doctor working as a consultant with UNICEF.
“They arrived in Rann in numbers and headed straight to the camp,” Abdullahi Idris, a resident who witnessed the action told The Daily Beast. “They knew exactly what they came for.”
Three other aid workers: Hauwa Liman, a midwife who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Saifura Khorsa, a nurse who also worked for the ICRC; and Alice Loksha, a UNICEF nurse, started running toward a nearby military base hoping to hide from the militants. Liman sent out an audio distress message via WhatApp telling a friend that they were under attack. Her last voice chat indicated the attackers had stormed the military base.
“Oh my God they are now coming in, they are going to kill me,” Liman cried out in the local Hausa language.
According to local media reports, four soldiers and five policemen were killed in the attack. Some published photographs indicated the officials were tied up before being shot.
The three women were abducted.
A SENIOR NIGERIAN DEFENSE OFFICIAL told The Daily Beast privately that the government reached out to representatives of ISWAP as soon as the women were taken, but the militants made demands too big to be met.
“They wanted more than a million dollars for each of the women,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorised to speak. “The government was not immediately able to meet their demands but made it clear that it was always willing to negotiate.”
The negotiations between the government and ISWAP went on for months, then stalled completely, and on Sept. 16 the jihadists executed 25-year-old Khorsa. A video of her murder was recorded and sent to the ICRC, along with demands for an undisclosed sum. According to the ICRC, which says it does not pay ransoms for the release of kidnapped staff, the militants gave the aid group just one month to meet their demands before another captive would be killed.
The ICRC said the group “made sustained and committed efforts to try and ensure our colleagues were released unconditionally and safely,” but to no avail.
“When their abduction was confirmed, the ICRC rapidly set up crisis teams in Maidiguri, Abuja and Geneva, with the sole aim of achieving this objective,” Aleksandra Matijevic Mosimann, spokesperson for the ICRC in Abuja, told The Daily Beast.
“It is our global policy not to pay ransoms or negotiate directly during abductions…. However, we used all the channels open to us to ask repeatedly that they be released immediately, unconditionally and unharmed,” Mosimann said.
As the deadline loomed, the ICRC released a video appeal directed at both the Nigerian government and ISWAP, pleading for the rescue of the two remaining captives, and warning that there might be only a few hours left before the militants killed one of the women.
“I’m appealing directly to the Islamic State in West African Province,” said Mamadou Sow, head of ICRC’s Operations in the Lake Chad Basin. “Please show some mercy. Hauwa [Liman] and Alice went to Rann to save lives, and they deserve to live.”
The next day ISWAP killed Liman. A short video clip of her execution was sent to The Cable, a Nigerian online news platform, but not posted. According to The Cable, Liman was forced to kneel down with her hands tied inside a white hija, and then shot at close range.
ISWAP, in a short statement that accompanied the video clip, boasted that the organization had “kept our word exactly as we said by killing another humanitarian worker,” and that both Khorsa and Liman were executed because “they are considered murtads [apostates] by the group because they were once Muslims that have abandoned their Islam” by choosing to work with the Red Cross, as if it were a Christian religious organization, which it is not.
Then they made their position clear. Any aid group helping the people would be their target. “For us, there is no difference between Red Cross and UNICEF,” the group’s statement added.
ISWAP said the third woman taken captive in March, Alice Loksha, a married woman with two children, is a Christian whom the militants have kept as a slave because of her faith. With her is 16-year-old Leah Sharibu, who was the only Christian among 110 girls abducted from a school in Dapchi in February, and the only one still held.
“Based on our doctrines,” ISWAP said, “it is now lawful for us to do whatever we want to do with them.”
ISWAP’s decision to keep the Christian women alive is a shift from its original agenda to murder all Christians. When al-Barnawi was appointed wali, or governor, of the group by ISIS, he vowed that the sect would act by “killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the cross.” By deciding not to kill both Loksha and Sharibu, at least for now, ISWAP may be looking to keep much of the world, especially the Christian community, talking about the women and bring attention back to the jihadist group, just as its former leader did with the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014.
“We will continue using all channels available to us to ask for the release of Alice and Leah on humanitarian grounds,” Mosimann said of the ICRC strategy to ensure the freedom of the girls. “They are civilians and not part of any fight. Their lives must be spared.”
NIGERIA’S INFORMATION MINISTER, Lai Mohammed, who confirmed the news of Liman’s killing, said in a statement that the country “did everything any responsible government should do to save the aid worker,” and is “pained” by the outcome. He did not say whether the government had tried to negotiate a ransom with the militants.
But Liman’s parents, who refuse to believe that their daughter has been killed, hinted last week that an agreement had been reached with the jihadist and wondered why their daughter would be killed after negotiating parties had reached an understanding.
“Up to this moment my mind has not told me that my daughter is dead,” Liman’s mother, Iyakachi, told Nigeria’s Channels Television. “Because if you see what happened, these people want money. Now after [President Muhammadu] Buhari agreed that he’d give the money, why is the gap between when he gave his consent and when this incident happened so close?”
“If a person wants money and they agreed to give him the money is he supposed to do this?” Iyakachi added.
Again, there is no confirmation that any ransom was negotiated or paid.
News of Liman’s execution sparked outrage, especially from the humanitarian community. The ICRC described her as “sociable”, “dynamic” and an “enthusiastic woman” who was very dedicated to assisting vulnerable women in her community.
“The news of Hauwa’s death has broken our hearts,” Patricia Danzi, ICRC regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “We appealed for mercy and an end to such senseless murders. How can it be that two female health care workers were killed back-to-back? Nothing can justify this.”
But the Islamic State in Nigeria, like the original organization in Iraq and Syria, has its own justifications, and these are likely to lead to many more murders in the months to come.