Boko Haram—the Taliban of Nigeria—finally seized the world’s attention this month, first for kidnapping hundreds of little girls and threatening to sell them, and again for indiscriminately massacring 336 people last week in the town of Gamboru Ngala. A ramp-up in attacks actually began back in February when its suicide bombers and gunmen struck 21 times, but we’re not yet numb to the kidnapping of hundreds of children, and last week’s atrocity was the deadliest yet.
Noah Rothman at Mediaite thinks it’s strange that Boko Haram is getting so much coverage all of a sudden. “Why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped, but were virtually unmoved when it was young boys who were being slaughtered and burned alive?”
There’s nothing sexist about it, if that’s what he’s implying. The boys are dead and the girls still might be saved. There’s a sense of urgency when victims’ fates are up in the air. The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 sucked all the oxygen out of the media atmosphere for the same reason.
The real reason, though, is the staggering number of victims—both the dead and the missing. All but one of Boko Haram’s previous attacks claimed dozens of victims, but the last three in a row reach into the hundreds.
Any terrorist attack anywhere in the world that claims 200 or more victims will make international news, and any terrorist organization that pulls those kinds of numbers in rapid succession will really find itself under the spotlight.
Whatever the reason, it’s about time. Africa is far too often ignored by the rest of the world.
Nigeria is a large country and Boko Haram is a small organization, but it has everyone rattled. “So vast and mysterious is the carnage,” reports National Geographic, “many otherwise sane Nigerians have come to believe Boko Haram possesses supernatural powers. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. It has become a kind of national synonym for fear.”
Now that it’s in the spotlight, reporters are explaining the basics to a wide audience for the first time, and the meaning of the organization’s name is getting lost a bit in translation. “Boko Haram” is frequently translated as “Western education is sinful,” but that’s off.
“Haram” is an Arabic loan word that means sinful, but “Boko” is not the word for Western education. “Boko,” according to linguist Paul Newman, means inauthenticity or fraud in the Hausa language of central Nigeria. “Boko originally meant ‘Something (an idea or object) that involves a fraud or any form of deception’ and, by extension, the noun denoted ‘Any reading or writing which is not connected with Islam.’” It also refers to the Latin alphabet when used to write Hausa. So the name sort of implies that Western education is sinful, but that’s not what it says.
Let’s get something else clear. Boko Haram is not some popular armed grassroots movement from the Muslim community like Hezbollah is for the Shias of Lebanon, nor is it a sectarian Iraqi-style militia. Boko Haram coordinates and has pledged solidarity with Al Qaeda, and as always for such organizations, everybody, Muslims included, is a potential target.
Somehow this is lost on certain observers. An article last August in the Christian Science Monitor began with a curious headline: Boko Haram attacks Muslims and kids, puzzling everyone.
Really? Is everyone puzzled, or just the Christian Science Monitor? I’m included in “everyone,” and it doesn’t even occur to me to be puzzled.
When Islamists seized power in Northern Mali in January of 2012, everybody they terrorized, murdered, and killed was a Muslim. The overwhelming majority of the Taliban’s victims are Muslims. Islamist insurgents ignited a nearly apocalyptic war in Algeria in 1991 which killed around 150,000 people, and with just a handful of exceptions, everybody they slaughtered was Muslim. Nearly all the civilian victims of Iraqi death squads and terrorist organizations were Muslims.
In the case that baffled the Christian Science Monitor—and, apparently, some unnamed “Africa watchers”—Boko Haram shot 44 men inside a mosque while they were praying. That might baffle someone who has paid little or no attention to violent Islamists over the last decade or so, but the article itself (which the headline writer must not have read) includes a perfectly obvious motive for Boko Haram attacking a mosque. “On a recent trip to Maiduguri, most imams refused to speak of Boko Haram after several of them had been assassinated for criticizing the group. One imam said the militants attacked mosques and Muslims because they were not devoted to Boko Haram’s extremist cause.”
I can’t definitively nail down whether the kidnapped girls are Muslims or Christians. They’re occasionally described as Christian girls in the media, perhaps for the same reason some people are baffled that Boko Haram would shoot up a mosque, but here is a picture purportedly of some of the missing girls’ mothers. All are wearing Islamic abayas. If that photo and caption are accurate, at least some of Boko Haram’s so-far most-famous victims are Muslims.
But Boko Haram also murders Christians for no reason other than the fact that they’re Christians. And they’ve kidnapped Christians and forced them to convert to Islam at gunpoint.
Per Rothman at Mediaite, that the group is getting so much attention all of a sudden isn’t what’s strange. What’s strange is how long Boko Haram managed to murder and pillage under the radar. Regional experts have known about Boko Haram for more than a decade, but most Westerners didn’t hear the first thing about them until last week.
Even the State Department blew off Boko Haram until recently. Foggy Bottom under Hillary Clinton—against the advice of the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA—resisted branding Boko Haram a terrorist organization. The State Department under John Kerry, at least, plugged that hole last November.
Patrick Meehan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told Josh Rogin at The Daily Beast why State dragged its feet. “At the time, the sentiment that was expressed by the administration was this was a local grievance and therefore not a threat to the United States or its interests. They were saying al Qaeda was on the run.”
Osama bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda is global, and it’s on the offensive, not on the run. One of their franchises took over Northern Mali. Another controls large swaths of Syria. Chunks of Libya could degenerate into Al Qaeda statelets if we’re not careful. Another franchise is active in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would like nothing more than to re-ignite the civil war in Algeria.
Some terrorists really are local—the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, for instance, and the Basque ETA in Spain—but Al Qaeda is and always has been global in its reach and ambition. It makes no difference if Boko Haram never intends to attack the United States directly when it’s affiliated with a larger network that already has and surely plans to do so again.
In any case, Nigeria is one of the most pro-American countries in the world and could use a little help from its friends. If wouldn’t matter, though, if Nigerians hated our guts. No people on earth have this sort of scourge coming.