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World

Boko Haram Increasingly Uses Kidnapped Girls As Suicide Bombers

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Of all the atrocities that the terrorist group Boko Haram has visited upon Nigeria, one in particular ignited worldwide outrage. Two years ago this week, its fighters invaded a rural high school and carried off 270 girls. That mass kidnapping led to the campaign and hashtag, #bringbackourgirls. Most are still missing. And hundreds more have been taken. In a new report, the children's agency UNICEF warns that more and more of these young people are being turned into suicide bombers. We reached NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for more. Welcome.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, what more is UNICEF saying in its report about children, and these girls especially, and how they're being used by Boko Haram?

QUIST-ARCTON: UNICEF is asking a question, Renee. It's saying, is the world paying enough attention to this crisis? And it says the alarming trend in the growing number of children being used as weapons by Boko Haram in suicide attacks has risen sharply in the past years, as you've said, from four in 2014, to 44 last year. And this is happening in Nigeria and neighboring countries, where Boko Haram's violence has spread. And, as you've said, the lion's share of attacks carried out by children are by girls. So UNICEF's regional spokesman, Thierry Delvigne-Jean says, really, the world must sit up and pay more attention to this problem.

THIERRY DELVIGNE-JEAN: Children in this crisis are victims many times, not perpetrators. In many cases, they've been indoctrinated. Or they've seen their families threatened. Or they've seen their families killed. And the most tragic, stressing aspect of this crisis is that when they are freed by the military, they are rejected by their own communities and families.

MONTAGNE: So Ofeibea, survivors are being stigmatized, but are they also dangerous?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, UNICEF says Boko Haram has succeeded in creating this pernicious atmosphere of fear and suspicion towards children so that increasingly, some communities are starting to see these young people as threats to their own safety. So this is a huge problem that UNICEF feels is not being addressed enough.

MONTAGNE: And of course, many are still missing. Of those schoolgirls that caught the world's attention, at least 200 have never come back. Any ideas where they may be?

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, we keep hearing they have been cited here. They may be coming here. The former government before, the new government, or President Buhari. President Buhari's saying, we're doing our best. But bottom line is, no returned schoolgirls. There was talk of perhaps one across the border in Cameroon. So families are still desperate and frantic.

MONTAGNE: You know, there is another recent report. And its by the Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps, detailing how Boko Haram is acting almost like loan sharks when it comes to recruiting people. Tell us about that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mercy Corps says Boko Haram has enticed young people with, say, a loan, and then using mafia-style tactics. The group traps these youngsters and forces them to sign up and fight if they are unable to repay the loan. So that is yet another issue. Although Boko Haram is no longer holding territory, it is using suicide attacks. It's using girls and young people. It is using now, we are told, these incentives to other youngsters to make sure that their fight continues. They are not yet on the back foot.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line from her base in Dakar, Senegal. Thank you very much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure, Renee. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.