A group of twenty women armed with AK-47 assault rifles stare defiantly at a camera. Most appear to be civilians, although three of them are wearing military-style camouflage uniforms. One woman stands in front of the rest, her rifle aimed forward at waist level. The muzzle appears to have been taped over, possibly to keep dust out of the barrel.
On Twitter, Facebook and the Web, the women have been hailed as heroes in the fight against Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria. “Nigerian women who repulsed a Boko Haram attack, kudos to these gutsy bravehearts,” read a typical tweet of the image this week.
“Several Nigerian media outlets have been reporting on local women in the villages of Attagara and Kawuri in Borno State who recently disarmed nearly a dozen Boko Haram terrorists,” the article continues.
“The notorious pseudo-Islamic terror groups tried to attack the Attagara and Kawuri communities over the weekend but the insurgents were instantly repelled by a group of armed women.”
It posted the image on 20 January 2015, along with this caption: “When Boko Haram showed up to kill and rape us and our students we didn’t hide or throw spaghetti-os…We shot them in the face because we don’t ‘demand’ action – we take action.”
The picture was shared more than 400 times and by 30 January 2015, just over 1,200 Facebook users had “liked” it. “You get ’em ladies,” wrote one. “I find their lack of belt fed weapons and RPGs troubling,” said another. “Face shooting is definitely the way to go,” added a third.
Solving a mystery
We were intrigued. Where was the photograph taken? What had happened? Who were the women? Were they teachers? Villagers? Vigilantes? We decided to do a little cyber-sleuthing.
We uploaded the image to Google. The results weren’t encouraging. There were dozens of links to web pages, Facebook posts and tweets all claiming that the photograph showed armed Nigerian women who had fought off Boko Haram. None offered any details of where the picture had been taken and who had taken it.
In fact, the image had been so widely published in relation to Boko Haram that Google’s suggested search term after we uploaded it was “boko haram women”.
We changed the search term to “Mali” and hit enter.
The claim is a hoax
As it turns out, our hunch was correct. The photo was first published on 23 November, 2012 in The Times of London. It had been taken by a Times photographer, Jack Hill, in the town of Sevare in Mali and accompanied an article by one of the newspaper’s correspondents, Jerome Starkey, about “women bent on revenge against Tuareg rebels in Mali”.
The women – all members of the Ganda Koy militia, a pro-government paramilitary force – had vowed to avenge relatives they said had been killed or raped by Tuareg rebels belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Few, if any of the women, had seen combat when the photograph was taken.
The story of the Nigerian teachers standing up to Boko Haram militants is nothing more than a hoax.
A wrap of online fakes and hoaxes
There are numerous images circulating online that purport to show Boko Haram atrocities. Some are genuine. Many are not.
Another ghastly image shows the burnt corpses of a mother and child. We have been unable to verify its exact origin, but searches on Google and the reverse image search engine, Tineye.com, show that the image has been circulating since at least 2010 and is therefore not from the recent Baga attacks. Given the condition of the bodies, they may have been victims of the fuel tanker explosion, but we cannot say for certain.
Not all the hoaxes involve images of atrocities. A photograph of two men in camouflage uniform being chased by a zebra has been widely distributed as evidence of the Nigerian army’s cowardice. Trouble is, there are no zebras in the wild in Nigeria. It turns out that the photograph was actually taken by a Reuters photographer in Kenya on 30 July 2007. Two Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, working to help move 2,000 animals to the Meru National Park, had to make a run for it when a recalcitrant zebra charged them.