On the evening of April 14, 2014, a band of gunmen stormed into a girls boarding school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok and carried away more
On the evening of April 14, 2014, a band of gunmen stormed into a girls boarding school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok and carried away more than 200 students who had been preparing for their graduation exams. The young women were taken to the remote forest hideout of a little-known Islamist sect named Boko Haram.
For weeks, almost no one seemed to notice the students were missing. Then the news went viral on Twitter, prompting some of the world’s most recognizable people—Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian, The Rock, Michelle Obama —to fire off a hashtag that lighted up billions of phones: #BringBackOurGirls. Those four words quickly demonstrated the power of social media to advance a distant cause. The girls became a global priority. To free them, a number of the world’s most powerful countries sent their armed forces, drones, satellites and sophisticated surveillance equipment. And then, just as quickly, Twitter’s hive mind swarmed onto its next viral cause, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and never returned.
Yet those few days of tweets lighted a fuse that continues to burn years later. The rescue mission launched in 2014 has quietly and covertly evolved into a military deployment across four West African countries. Nigeria’s military, U.S. diplomats and terrorism specialists still express bewilderment that a short-lived series of tweets so profoundly shaped the conflict with Boko Haram and other jihadist groups, which continue to kidnap children for fame, footsoldiers and ransom.
Through hundreds of interviews with officials involved in rescue efforts and 20 of the Chibok girls who won their freedom, we found a yearslong trail of far-ranging yet unintended outcomes that neither the advocates nor the cynics who dismissed the campaign as “slacktivism” could have foreseen.
The frenzied international coverage inspired both a race to free the women and a shift in Boko Haram’s tactics. Within months, the group was boasting that it had kidnapped vastly more young women, ransoming some and dispatching others as its first female suicide bombers. “The hashtag unwittingly provided Boko Haram with a road map to use gender violence to further its global brand,” says Nigerian writer Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani, who has interviewed more than 200 of the Chibok families.
“ ‘The hashtag unwittingly provided Boko Haram with a road map to use gender violence to further its global brand.’ ”
Nigeria’s longstanding insurgency, which had been grinding to a stalemate, might have taken a different course had the hashtag remained within Nigeria, where the movement began protesting days after the April 14 kidnapping. But on April 30, the hip-hop producer Russell Simmons, scrolling through his feed on a yacht off the French Antilles, became the first in a cascade of U.S. celebrities to tweet it, rallying American pop stars to resolve a Nigerian crisis.
Hours later, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey checked his phone during a dentist appointment to find hundreds of thousands of Americans joining this cause, crowdsourcing the liberation of a high-school class terrorized for their determination to learn. “Extremely powerful,” he thought. “It touches every single person on the planet.”
Within days, some of America’s most influential lawmakers, moved by a heartbreaking story that also satisfied the West’s faith in the power of its own technology, gathered on the Capitol steps, calling for intervention. At the White House, officials decided to deploy more than a quarter of a billion dollars of sophisticated materiel over some of the world’s poorest farmland, looking for the teenagers. Pentagon officials were skeptical. “Why are we looking for some schoolgirls as opposed to looking for al Qaeda?” one protested in a meeting.
The U.S. sent Global Hawk drones and a 40-person team to Nigeria to staff a rescue mission, plus some 80 troops to the dictatorship of Chad. The U.K. sent spy planes, while France and Israel offered intelligence assets.
Yet America’s air force had never embarked on a manhunt like this one. From above, any aerial sighting of young women in the vast search zone of brown flatland streaked with dried riverbeds could have just been ordinary village teenagers. Three months after the kidnapping, a surveillance photo landed on a bank of monitors in the CIA station in Abuja: an image of some 80 young women in full-length mayafi veils sitting under a tamarind tree.
“ ‘Everybody thinks, “Oh you’re the United States, you can just fly some troopers in there and go in and rescue them.” It’s not that simple.’ ”
U.S. and British officials studied what they nicknamed “the tree of life” under magnifying glasses at an ambassador’s house. Proposals for a possible special-forces rescue never advanced. It was hard enough under the best conditions to liberate so many hostages simultaneously. Worse, moving sufficient aircraft or armored cars into the remote area risked being noticed by a bystander who might tweet the news and blow the operation. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh you’re the United States, you can just fly some troopers in there and go in and rescue them,’” one U.S. official supervising the effort said. “It’s not that simple.”
If the women weren’t going to be extracted by force, negotiations would have to prevail. The hashtag had inspired the intervention of many would-be intermediaries, as a bizarre cast of have-a-go heroes flew into the capital of Abuja, chasing fame. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, overwhelmed by the torrent of social-media demands, authorized countless competing negotiating efforts. All of them failed.
When hostage talks and intervention broke down, the young women were forced to take survival into their own hands. As the months dragged into years, the students, most of them Christians, came of age in captivity. They began whispering prayers together at night or keeping secret diaries, and copied passages about Mary from a smuggled Bible. At risk of beatings and torture, they softly sang gospel songs, fortifying each other with a hymn: “We, the children of Israel, will not bow.”
Their hashtag fame spared them the worst treatment meted out to other captives but also made it harder for them to flee. When several of the students mounted a daring nighttime escape, they were recognized by villagers who had seen them on TV and handed back. Thereafter, only four successfully escaped, with 103 rescued by negotiation. More than 100 are still missing.
How were those 103 young women freed? The small team that ultimately answered the global demand to rescue the Chibok girls worked in secret for one of the world’s most discreet governments: Switzerland. Its success relied not on loudly expressing moral judgment but on suspending it. They tried to reason with Boko Haram instead of denouncing it.
In 2016, a deal finally came together: 3 million euros and the release of five jailed Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the girls who had resisted endless pressure to join the group, with the students released in two batches. The first exchange would be a secret, all agreed. But a bystander posted a photo of the young women as they went free, which went viral on social media. In retaliation, Boko Haram delayed the second release by six months, during which time, it said, two of the girls decided to join the group.
It is impossible to know what would have happened to the students—and the evolution of the conflict—if the abduction had not sparked a global campaign. Since then, Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 10,000 boys as child fighters as well as a similar number of girls and women, who were ransomed to their families or forced into marriage.
The Chibok girls who were released received full scholarships to Nigeria’s now heavily guarded American University. Some joined a new debate club, where one afternoon during their first year of freedom, the survivors argued both sides of a question they are uniquely positioned to answer: “Is social media a force for good?”
—Mr. Parkinson is the Journal’s Africa bureau chief, and Mr. Hinshaw reported from West Africa for the Journal. This essay is adapted from their new book, “Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls,” which will be published in March by Harper (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).
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