JOHANNESBURG — Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that has kidnapped schoolgirls and turned northeastern Nigeria into a war zone, has a female recruitment wing, Nigerian defense officials said Friday as they released photographs of three women alleged to be members of the group.
Nigeria’s military headquarters said in Twitter message that three women had been arrested on suspicion of enticing women and girls to join the terrorist group. It said they were promising women husbands, mainly Boko Haram fighters, if they joined.
Boko Haram has been waging an insurgency for more than a decade in its effort to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, a nation deeply divided between the mainly Islamic north and predominantly Christian south. The group opposes secular education, democracy, taxation, banking and all aspects of Western culture.
In photos released by the military, a woman in a blue hijab identified as Aisha Abubakar cradled prayer beads in her hands. She and two other suspects, Hafsat Usman Bako and Zainab Idris, were arrested traveling to Madagali, south of the city of Maiduguri, the Defense Ministry said.
The arrests follow a suicide bombing by a woman near a military barracks in the city of Gombe last month. The attacker killed herself and a soldier.
According to defense officials, the three arrested women were planning to go to the forest outside Madagali to meet up with members of Boko Haram.
“Investigations reveal that the suspects, led by Hafsat Bako, have the mission to recruit members into the female wing as well as conduct espionage for the group,” a ministry statement said. It said Bako was the widow of a Boko Haram fighter.
Nigerian authorities have arrested and jailed the wives and children of Boko Haram leaders and members in the past. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has cited the arrest of his wife as one reason for the group’s kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April, 219 of whom remain in captivity.
Dozens more women, children and schoolboys were kidnapped by extremists in attacks on villages in the region last month.
Nigeria’s military has ruled out a rescue mission to recover the schoolgirls, saying many probably would be killed. Some analysts believe the only option for recovering them is a prisoner swap, but Nigerian authorities have ruled out negotiations.
Boko Haram was driven out of Maiduguri last year, but it set up camp in the hills in a vast region south of the city. It has been launching attacks on villages, killing hundreds of people.
The group is also suspected in bomb attacks on civilians in urban areas that have targeted markets, hotels, bars and crowds gathered to watch the World Cup soccer games.
Nigeria’s military has faced intense criticism for its failure to rescue the Chibok girls, protect villages and restore overall security.