ABUJA – The girls sit quietly on the ground, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, barely moving, clearly scared.
“Praise be to Allah, the lord of the world,” they chant.
The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, purports to show about 100 of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters nearly a month ago. It’s the first time they’ve been seen since their abduction April 14.
In separate shots included in the 27-minute video, the group’s leader says he would release the girls only after imprisoned members of Boko Haram are freed, according to AFP. But Nigerian officials insisted today that the man in
the video can’t be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.
He’s dead, they said, although experts doubt the claim, as videos going back to last year show the same man calling himself Shekau. Whoever he is, Nigeria’s interior minister said the country isn’t interested in negotiating a swap, anyway, AFP reported.
If authentic, the video released today is the first glimpse of the girls since Boko Haram fighters snatched them from a boarding school in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok.
A senior administration official told CNN that American officials had no reason to question its authenticity.
“Our intelligence experts are combing over every detail of the video for clues that might help in the ongoing efforts [to] secure the release of the girls,” the official said.
The abductions have resulted in worldwide outrage directed at the terror group, and an influx of Western counterterrorism and law enforcement experts to help Nigeria fight it.
Filmed in a nondescript clearing surrounded by scrub and trees, the girls appear dressed in gray or black veils. Many look nervous or under duress. In one shot, a girl almost whispers a line from the Quran.
In separate shots filmed against a green backdrop, the man who claims to be Shekau says the girls – who come from a Christian stronghold – have converted to Islam.
Although the man appeared to open a window to the possibility of negotiating a swap –– the girls for Boko Haram prisoners held by Nigeria –– he also said he still plans to sell them into slavery.
Government officials today disputed that the man in the tape is Shekau.
Security forces have confirmed and are sure Shekau is dead, Marilyn Ogar, deputy director of State Security Services in Nigeria, told CNN. “So, whoever is speaking as Abubakar Shekau is not Abubakar Shekau.”
The same man appears in Boko Haram videos claiming to be Shekau at least as far back as August. And at least one expert doubted Ogar’s claim.
Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram at the Jamestown Foundation, a policy centre based in Washington, said he was sceptical of the Nigerian claim unless it could be backed up with hard evidence.
He said Nigerian authorities have said Shekau was dead several times, only for him to resurface and for the Nigerian military subsequently to acknowledge he was alive.
“The two recent videos after the abduction of the girls look similar to most of the images, voice and mannerisms of Shekau in almost all Boko Haram videos, including videos when he was a local imam in northeastern Nigeria before 2010,” Zenn said.
If the government’s assertion turns out to be untrue, it wouldn’t be the first time it has been wrong about the terror group since the girls’ abductions. Early in their disappearance, government officials said many of the girls had been recovered – news that, sadly, turned out to be incorrect.
Some observers took the video as encouraging.
Not only would it prove that at least some girls are alive and unharmed, said retired United States Major General James “Spider” Marks, a CNN military analyst, it also gives intelligence analysts something with which to work.
Nigerian government officials also took notice. The governor of the state where Chibok is located, Borno, ordered officials to distribute the video to parents to help identify the girls.
Governor Kashim Shettima “views the development as encouraging especially given the fact that some of the girls said they were not harmed”, his office said in a statement. “The governor hopes that the girls did not speak under duress.”
Despite the optimism, Marks said it will still be painfully difficult to find and rescue the girls after a month in the terror group’s custody.
“We have to lower our expectations, sadly, as to what we think this result and outcome is going to look like,” he told CNN’s New Day.
The girls have been missing since Boko Haram militants took them from their school in Chibok.
A CNN team made the dangerous journey to Chibok to gather firsthand accounts of the abductions.
Before the gun-wielding Islamist militants rode into town, residents said they got cellphone calls that the feared extremist group was on the way. Family and friends from surrounding villages told them of a convoy of cargo trucks, pickups and motorcycles.
Residents said they passed along warnings to local authorities that night. Police called for reinforcements, but none came. Everyone, including police, fled into the bush. But the girls remained asleep in their dorms.
CNN’s Nima Elbagir toured the school, gutted by militants as they fled, and spoke with one of the girls who managed to escape Boko Haram fighters that night.
The girl told Elbagir how she made a dash for freedom after militants loaded them into trucks and drove them into the nearby Sambisa Forest.
“We ran into the bush,” she said of her escape with two others. (CNN)