Boko Haram on Tuesday claimed the abduction of hundreds of students in northwestern Nigeria, in what would be its first attack in the region since it launched a jihadist uprising more than a decade ago.
Boko Haram and its rival, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (Iswap) group, have until now waged an insurgency in the northeast of the country and neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The governor of Katsina state, Aminu Bello Masari, said late on Monday that the abductors “have made contacts with the government.”
“Talks are ongoing to ensure their safety and return to their respective families,” he said on Twitter.
The number of missing students remains unclear. Military spokesman General John Enenche spokesman told TV channels on Monday that 333 pupils were unaccounted for after heavily armed gunmen raided the all-boys Government Science secondary school in the town of Kankara.
The attack on Friday was initially blamed on so-called bandits — criminal groups in the unstable region who often carry out kidnappings.
The army said over the weekend that it had located the hideout of the “bandits” and a military operation was underway.
Boko Haram's involvement, if confirmed, would change the narrative.
The government did not immediately react to the claim.
“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” said the voice, in a four-minute recording sent to AFP through the same channel as previous messages from Boko Haram.
The voice resembles that of the elusive jihadist leader, Abubakar Shekau, who was behind the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok that led to a global outrage.
“We carried out the Katsina attack for the religion of Allah to be supreme and to debase unbelief, because western education is not Islamic and what is taught is not sanctioned by Allah and the Prophet.”
The attack, if conducted by Boko Haram, would mark an expansion in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced millions from their homes.
Fears that Boko Haram and Iswap were making inroads into the northwest have been simmering for some time.
“Since 2014, Shekau himself has been trying to get the bandits in the northwest to become loyal to him, and there is growing evidence from the past year that more and more bandits have claimed their loyalty to him,” said Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the Washington-based research group, The Jamestown Foundation.
“Nigerian intelligence sources have been observing that there are logistic networks, financing networks between Shekau and the northwest,” Zenn told AFP.
Katsina borders Niger, and a major concern has been if Boko Haram or Iswap linked up with jihadist groups in the Sahel.
“It's increasingly looking like the jihadist theatre in Mali and Niger and northwest Nigeria are really beginning to blend together as one,” said Zenn.
The International Crisis Group issued a report in May, saying porous borders could connect “Islamic insurgencies in the central Sahel with the decade-old insurgency in the Lake Chad region.”
More than 36,000 people have been killed in the conflict and two million have been displaced. UN Refugee Agency spokesman Romain Desclous said that violence in northwest Nigeria had already prompted 70,000 people to flee to the Niger border town of Maradi since the end of 2018.
#BringBackOurBoys trended on social media after the attack, in reference to a similar hashtag after the Chibok kidnappings.
Angry residents heckled Katsina's governor when he visited the area on Saturday and protesters greeted a delegation led by Defence Minister Bashir Salihi-Magashi on Sunday.
The kidnappings occurred in the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari, who was visiting the area when the attack happened.
The president condemned the attack and ordered security stepped up in schools.
Buhari has made the fight against Boko Haram a priority but the security situation in Nigeria has deteriorated since his 2015 election.
“What's worrying is that this is coinciding with the visit of the president to his home state. So if it does not gear Buhari to action, then definitely nothing will,” Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) West Africa think tank told AFP.
The British High Commission in Nigeria told AFP on Tuesday it was aware that Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the Friday attack and that it was “monitoring the situation closely.”
The European Union has called “for the immediate and unconditional release of all children and their return to their families. “