Boko Haram ‘massacre’ image fake

Comments 11

A graphic photograph circulating on Facebook and Twitter is said to show the badly charred bodies of 375 Christians murdered by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. But the image - as evidence of a massacre - is false.

The image continues to be shared on social media as proof of atrocities committed by Boko Haram, most recently as showing 86 children who were burnt to death by the militant group. See the bottom of this report for more examples.

The image is horrific. Dozens of charred corpses lie in rows in the sun. In the background near a ruined building with a rusting corrugated iron roof police, soldiers and medics – some of them wearing masks to hide the stench – stand around helplessly. A caption across the top of the photograph reads: “Boko Haram burns 375 Christians”.

The Nigerian militant group – which gained worldwide notoriety in April this year when it kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls – has been linked to hundreds of killings and dozens of atrocities and bombings since it launched a violent insurgency in 2009 to overthrow the country’s government and establish an Islamic state. Most recently the group has been implicated in attacks on villages in north-eastern Nigeria in which churches were torched and more than 40 people reported to have been killed. It has also been blamed for a car bomb explosion which claimed at least 56 lives.

That alone would seem to give the image some credence. But does it really show the aftermath of a massacre of 375 Christians? And where was it taken, and when? Could it be a fake?

An Africa Check reader, who got in touch with us on Facebook, asked us to investigate.

(Warning: Some of the links below contain graphic and disturbing images.)

Powerful propaganda

The image circulating on Facebook and Twitter. Due to the horrific nature of the image we have blurred the corpses in the foreground. The circle shows a distinctive section of the corrugated iron roof and a window which matches the Reuters image below.Faked images and pictures of purported atrocities make for powerful propaganda tools on social media sites. Often they go ghoulishly viral.

In 2012, the BBC found itself in hot water after it used a photograph supplied by an “activist” showing a massacre in Syria. The picture had actually been taken in March 2003 in Iraq.

In the Ukraine, amid a military offensive against pro-Russia militants, the fact-checking website has exposed a number of instances in which images have been manipulated or faked to show atrocities that never happened. One image, which was widely distributed on Facebook, showed the city of Donetsk burning.  It had been cleverly Photoshopped.

Another far more gruesome photograph was distributed on a Russian news website. It purported to show a Ukrainian man eating the arm of a Russian. In fact, the arm was a movie prop and the man holding it was a prop maker involved in a 2008 film.

In Africa an image that was actually taken in the Central African Republic showing soldiers killing a man has been passed off on Twitter as evidence of  “a homosexual stoned by police” in Uganda.

A massacre, or an oil tanker explosion?

This image, posted on the Reuters news agency website, reports on a horrific petrol tanker accident in the DRC that killed at least 230 people. Note the circled window and corrugated iron roof which matches with the supposed Boko Haram massacre photo.So how do you tell fact from fiction? Fortunately a number of online tools exist to help you spot fakes and hoaxes online. By uploading the image to Google’s image search function and sifting through the results we managed to narrow the hunt down. (Note: We have edited the Boko Haram “massacre” picture above to blur the corpses. The original image can be viewed here but – be warned – it is extremely disturbing.)

We quickly discovered that the picture was all too horribly genuine. But while it does depict a real event, it is not evidence of a massacre or, for that matter, the massacre of 375 Christians. Rather it shows the aftermath of a fuel tanker explosion nearly 2000 kilometres from Nigeria in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The tragedy, which occurred exactly four years ago today, killed at least 230 people and injured 190. The fuel tanker apparently overturned while trying to overtake a bus. By-standers were attempting to collect leaking fuel from the truck when the fuel ignited, possibly as the result of a lit cigarette. Many of the dead had gathered nearby to watch a World Cup soccer match.

Due to its graphic nature, the image of the charred corpses was not widely published but it did slip into circulation on the Internet.

Conclusion: Massacre image false

To determine whether the purported Boko Haram massacre of 375 Christians and the tanker explosion were one and the same incident, we examined television news footage and still images distributed by major news agencies.

Perhaps the most telling image was published on the Reuters website. It shows a row of bodies covered in blankets. In that image and the purported Boko Haram “massacre” image, the same distinctive building with the same discoloured corrugated iron roof and same window can be seen. The uniforms worn by the soldiers and the white Red Cross bibs worn by some of the emergency workers also match.

As it turns out, the “massacre” picture has been falsely used as evidence of other atrocities in Nigeria and even as far afield as Myanmar. For instance it has been falsely described as evidence of an attack on 500 Christians by Muslims in Nigeria. That claim was debunked by websites Hoax-Slayer and

Just as the image has been used as “evidence” of atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians, it has also been used as “proof” of the slaughter of Muslims by Buddhist monks.

Various blog posts which appeared during a wave of religious violence in Myamnar claimed the image was evidence of “systematic violence” against Muslims. In fact, it has been so widely used in that context that Google suggests the  search phrase “Burma Muslim” if you upload the photograph to the search engine.


Additional reading

FACTSHEET: Explaining Nigeria’s Boko Haram and its violent insurgency

Updates 12 January 2015: The image went viral once again amid reports that dozens, hundreds or possibly as many as 2,000 people had been massacred in Boko Haram attacks centered on the northern Nigerian town of Baga and surrounding villages. While the image - as evidence of a massacre - was false, the killings around Baga were all too real. Amnesty International described the slaughter as the "deadliest massacre" in the history of Boko Haram and there were disturbing reports of bodies strewn among bushes and in village streets nine days later. 29 March 2016: The image went viral when it was shared - over 40,000 times - under the hashtag #PrayforNigeria. This time is was shared as evidence of 86 children who were burnt to death by Boko Haram. An attack of this nature did happen on 30 January 2016 in the Nigerian village of Dalori. An estimated 86 people were report dead after Boko Haram fighters opened fire on villagers and set fire to houses. Have you seen this image being shared as proof of atrocities committed by Boko Haram? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Comment on this report

Comments 11
  1. By Hammaadama Muhammad Liman

    This is nothing but a trick by some unscrupulous elements in other to distabilize Nigeria and couse an socio-ethnic/Religion conflict between Nigerians. Dia ris God o

    Reply Report comment

    Some people are trying tooth and nail to destroy this great country Nigeria. That’s a good work done by your paper by educating Nigerians. Weldone sir.

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Mustapha Muhammad

    It is now becoming glaring that this country is under a great threat of disintegration using religious sentiments and creating artificial enmity resulting in our people killing themselves.
    The real target for these forces of disintegration is Arewa. The Malam, Gambari or whatever derogatory names given to the northerner either Muslim or Christian put us in a real danger of infighting, hunger and starvation. Middle Belters are advised to be on the site of caution. Hoping that they do not carry themselves from frying fan to fire so to say.
    If however parting ways in peace for every section of this country to realize it’s potentials so be it. Let people of wisdom help make those preparing for blood letting realize that there are so many ways to skin a cat

    Reply Report comment
  4. By V

    This picture has been circulating for awhile, especially on Facebook (in English and Spanish at least) almost always as a massacre of Christians by Muslims (this is the first time I have seen it attributed to Boko Haram). I have seen it shared at least 4 or 5 times in the last few years. Disturbing hate speech.

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Lee

    the picture is there again, in facebook this time using the name Rohingya… this is stupid,.. hatred everywhere just because of pics like this…..

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Suzanne

    Hello! A friend shared this image on Facebook about the 86 children being burned as per Boko Haram. In the image they have the same hut with tin roof and lady in orange shirt standing outside….! I see that it is fake but am sorry to hear of the horrors that are truly happening!

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Emma Doughty

    Saw this today and I’m sad to say that I have friends who WANT to believe everything they see on FB.They even get mad at me when I do the fact checking and show it to them!!!

    Reply Report comment
  8. By Bonnie Russell

    It’s sad that the media will use old images to reflect the facts of actual events. But hey, everybody, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Many of these stories are true or mostly true accounts where there were no pictures to post with the stories.

    Reply Report comment
  9. By Bronwen

    Unfortunately, this image is doing the rounds again on WhatsApp. It was sent to me yesterday. Thanks for the fact check, I have passed your article on to the sender.

    Reply Report comment

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