A Nigerian peace activist claims militants of the country's violent Boko Haram terrorist group -- many of whom joined the organization as children -- are sorry for the atrocities that they have committed and want to return to their former lives.
Aisha Wakil, known as Mama Boko Haram because of her connection with the group, has campaigned for peace between the terrorists and the Nigerian government over the past five years. She was nominated by the country's previous president, Goodluck Jonathan, as part of a team to trace the 220 Chibok girls shortly after they were abducted last year.
Last month, she was invited by TGS intelligence and security consultants to an event at the University of East London that sought to raise awareness about radicalisation within African communities. She recounted her experiences with the original Boko Haram members and promoted the use of dialogue as a means to end the war rather than through military force.
"They told me they want to come back home, they want to go back to school, and those who want to work and those who are trading they should be allowed to do that," she told the audience.
"These are some of things that we are going to reconsider, they even said they are going to rebuild their mosque and some we will want to teach Islam.
"They say they are sorry for what they have done, if Allah helps us to help them they will never go back – they promise me they shall not."
She knew members of the group, including its former leader Mohammad Yusuf, before it formed in 2009 in Maiduguri, where the army has relocated from Abuja to tackle the insurgency once and for all.
"I call them my beloved children," she said. "Beloved because they are not what people think they are -- you have to get close to somebody's mouth to smell it. I am part and parcel of their family."
Yusuf, who was her brother-in-law, was shot dead allegedly while trying to escape police custody in 2009 and was like a hero to other members of the group who "followed him with all their heart" giving them money, motorbikes, and helping them to start businesses.
But then war broke out following the government's implementation of a "shoot and kill policy" against those who refused to wear motorcycle helmets. This was reportedly the final repressive act by the Nigerian government that led to the rise of Boko Haram, according to TGS co-founder David Otto.
Since then the group has killed more than 13,000 civilians in attacks across northeast Nigeria. They have also abducted more than 500 men, women and children to be used as sex slaves or fighters, including the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April, 2014. They were taken in trucks to the Sambisa Forest where some escaped, however, 220 remain missing. At least 750,000 people have been displaced from their homes during the five year conflict.
Original Boko Haram members
"The most important reason why we brought in Mama Boko Haram was because of her pre-existing relationship with some of these boys who formed the original Boko Haram group," Otto told IBTimes UK.
"She knew them as young children as she used to live in the same area even when they joined the organisation – when things started changing for the worse with killing individuals and burning down places she still had that relationship with them. She saw them in the light of young children and since then she has been involved in trying to find a strategy, a way out for these young people who seek an alternative – an exit strategy on how they can dialogue with the government but this has been very difficult because of different elements within the government at the time, which limited her success in what she was trying to do.
"There were issues with the government when the organisation started. Mohammad Yusuf who was the original leader was acting like a social service for these young people – when he left Saudia Arabia for Nigeria to work as an Imam.
"But when the government introduced the motorbike regulation requiring everyone had to wear a helmet – the young people objected on religious grounds. The government introduced the shoot to kill policy for anyone not wearing a helmet and this is how the rioting and the organisation itself became prominent.
"These young people thought they had something good for them – they had a life – but by shooting them because they didn't want to comply with wearing a helmet instead of educating them gave rise to what we have as Boko Haram."
SISO now hopes to initiate dialogue with some of these groups Mama Boko Haram has been in contact with to see if they can leave the organisation.
"What the government is doing now - taking the military centre down from Abuja to Maiduguri – shows military force seems more important than having dialogue. The fact you have all these bombs going off is a reaction possibly to the strategy which is taking dialogue out of the equation – it's frustrating in the sense dialogue is a lot more cheaper to initiate than using military force."
Boko Haram, now led by Abubakar Shekau, recently carried out a bomb attack in Yola, killing at least 31 people after denying in a video release that the government had recaptured territories from them.