Does America really care about Boko Haram?

Thousands have been killed or kidnapped by Islamist terrorists in Nigeria. But there’s been no meaningful effort to tackle this growing menace.


Imagine for a moment that what everyone has been hoping for and tweeting about and demanding on social media actually comes to pass: that the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were stolen and enslaved by the Islamist group Boko Haram are found and rescued, perhaps in a dramatic raid carried out with the help of Western personnel who have been dispatched to Nigeria to help its government track the kidnappers down. Then what?

Then, likely, more of the same terror that has enveloped much of northern Nigeria for years: more kidnappings, more bombings, more death.

For all the international attention it has received, Boko Haram’s abduction of the schoolgirls is neither unique nor unprecedented. Last May, Boko Haram attacked a town close to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon and took about a dozen girls and women captive. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, then appeared in a video threatening to make the captives his “servants” unless jailed Boko Haram family members were released. (It appears that Nigeria complied.) This was not an isolated case. A November 2013 report by Human Rights Watch documented numerous examples of Boko Haram stealing young girls. Some who were subsequently rescued were then sent away by their families to avoid the stigma of rape and pregnancy outside marriage.

By the twisted standards of what constitutes fortune among those targeted by Boko Haram, these girls were lucky. In February, Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in northern Nigeria and slaughtered 59 schoolboys, cutting their throats and burning them to death inside the school. Their female classmates were told to go home, abandon their secular education, and get married. No one launched a Twitter campaign to remember the massacred boys.

To these horrors can be added regular bombings, assassinations and attacks on churches that Nigeria’s security forces have been unable to stop. Amnesty International estimates that more than 1,500 people died in Boko Haram-related violence during the first three months of 2014. According to the United Nations, more than half a million Nigerians have fled their homes. Much of the poverty-stricken north of Nigeria has slipped beyond the firm control of the state. Boko Haram, unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan during the height of the insurgency there, has not set up any sort of parallel local administration or justice system, but they are able to operate more or less freely.

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, believes his country is at a moment of change. Speaking to foreign dignitaries who had come to the Nigerian capital Abuja this month for a meeting of the World Economic Forum, Jonathan predicted that the high-profile kidnapping of the girls would trigger the “beginning of the end of terror” in his country.

His optimism is misplaced. Nigeria has proven itself incapable of defeating Boko Haram on its own. While several of Nigeria’s international allies have promised to help Nigeria locate the stolen girls, none has offered to expand that assistance to include a robust mission against Boko Haram. When the schoolgirls are found and rescued, or when they are tragically declared to be lost forever, Nigeria will be back where it started: on its own, struggling to contain a fanatical Islamist group that brings death and mayhem to large swaths of the country, and is on the prowl for more girls to take.

Among the countless celebrities to hold up signs with the ubiquitous Twitter slogan “Bring back our girls” were American first lady Michelle Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The phrase “our girls” is meant to suggest solidarity with the victims and their families, and the expressed emotions may be genuine. But when it comes to the broader issue of Boko Haram, most Western leaders have concluded that the struggle against it is Nigeria’s fight, not theirs.

America earlier this month announced it was dispatching a team of 27 military, law enforcement and diplomatic officials to help the Nigerian government look for the missing girls. White House spokesman Jay Carney explicitly said America was not considering bringing “force to bear or troops to bear” in Nigeria. Britain has also sent a mixed team of intelligence agents, police and military personnel. Canada has revealed little about whom it has dispatched, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper referring only to “personnel” on the ground in Nigeria.


Those sent by outside countries are few in number and are there, it seems, in an advisory capacity. This is a different response from what took place in Mali last year, when jihadists took over much of the country and were threatening the capital. Then, France intervened quickly and forcefully, dispatching thousands of combat troops who worked with African partners to expel the Islamists from all the major towns they had occupied and preserved Mali’s fragile government. Canada and other allies helped by providing logistical support.

Jonathan’s government has not asked for this sort of assistance, but it would not be forthcoming if he did. Britain, Nigeria’s former colonial ruler, has not maintained the same ties to its former African colonies that France has. And the U.S. under President Barack Obama has been reluctant to intervene where it believes America does not have obvious security concerns. From this perspective, Boko Haram presents a dilemma, as the scope of its motivations and ambitions is unclear.

John Campbell, American’s ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007, says Boko Haram is “basically about a local and radical response to bad governance and exploitation by the Nigerian government.” The often brutal counter-insurgency tactics of the Nigerian military and security forces have not helped. “Their approach has been to go in and basically kill anybody in a village who they think is in any way associated with Boko Haram, which has left civilians in these communities feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In many cases they are just as scared of the Nigerian security forces as they are of Boko Haram.”

There is also evidence linking Boko Haram with other international Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During last year’s French offensive against Islamists in northern Mali, for example, at least two Boko Haram training centres were found in areas in which AQIM and Ansar Dine, another Islamist insurgent group, were operating, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

This followed a 2010 statement by AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud that his group would support Boko Haram’s with weapons and training. The following August, Boko Haram bombed a United Nations compound in Abuja, killing more than 20 in its first attack on an international target. A martyrdom video released after the attack showed the suicide bomber praising Osama bin Laden and condemning the UN as a “forum of all global evil.” Boko Haram has also bragged about its fighters receiving training in Somalia, where the al-Shabaab Islamist group is engaged in a long-running insurgency.

“It’s part of an international complex,” says Jacob Zenn, an Africa analyst at the Jamestown Foundation. Indeed, across the breadth of the African Sahel, from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east, similarly radical Islamist groups have exploited the lack of good governance, poor infrastructure and enormous, sparsely populated landscapes to establish themselves. Somalia-based al-Shabaab has killed thousands, also hitting targets in Kenya and Uganda, according to the U.S. State Department. AQIM, which grew out of an Islamist rebellion in Algeria, is active across much of northwestern Africa. It has carried out numerous high-profile attacks and kidnappings, including that of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. In 2013, an AQIM splinter group, which included a Canadian attacker, assaulted an Algerian gas facility and murdered some 39 hostages.

Why then, given Boko Haram’s apparent bonds with other jihadists in Africa, has the Western response been so restrained? Part of the answer is that Western governments don’t believe these African Islamists directly threaten them. “The question is, are whatever conversations that go on between people who say they are Boko Haram and say they are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Shabaab in any way transformative? Do they change anything? I see no evidence of it,” says Campbell, the former ambassador and author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.


But if Boko Haram lacks the ability to hit targets in, say, Europe or North America, it does pose a threat to Nigeria, and is increasingly becoming a threat to Nigeria’s neighbours. This is something the West should be worried about, says Campbell. “The Nigerian state has been a friend and partner of the United States for a very long time. So if the Nigerian state does go south or is greatly diminished in its capacity, that affects U.S. interests in a big way.”

Already, says Pham, the Boko Haram insurgency is having a “corrosive effect” on Nigeria. Soldiers sent to confront Boko Haram have revolted over lack of pay and poor leadership. Presidential elections are scheduled for next February. If something resembling fair voting cannot be held in the north because of a lack of security, the resulting government—likely led by Goodluck Jonathan again—will lack legitimacy. Zenn, the Jamestown analyst, believes Nigeria is somewhat on the verge of collapse, and that if it does collapse, “the whole West African order—boundaries, politics, security—could be overthrown.”

Preventing such an outcome is clearly in the interests of the United States and its allies. But prevailing opinion in Western capitals is that defeating Boko Haram is primarily a Nigerian responsibility, and one it should be capable of shouldering given its wealth and power: Its GDP is the largest in Africa, bigger than those of Belgium and Taiwan. “Nigeria has the largest standing army on the continent of Africa and is flushed with unprecedented oil reserves. Why can’t they [take on Boko Haram]?” asks Coleman.

Nigeria has not been able to seriously degrade Boko Haram because its army is heavy-handed and often incompetent, and because the Jonathan administration has not brought enough economic development and proper governance to Boko Haram strongholds in the north.

This touches on another reason why the West has not confronted Boko Haram in force. Nigeria has avoided asking for help—in part because doing so would undermine the image it wishes to project of itself as a regional superpower. “Nigeria has long resisted any internationalizing of this issue,” says Pham. “We’re not dealing with a weak country that will gratefully accept any assistance it can get.”

In fact, says Pham, American intelligence analysts that have been sent to Nigeria in response to the schoolgirls’ abduction will be working without the sort of foundational knowledge that should have been established already had Nigeria allowed America a greater intelligence presence in the country prior to the schoolgirls’ abduction. “The United States is coming late to the game because of Nigeria’s prickly sensibilities,” he says.

Finally, there are limits to what Western forces can realistically accomplish, even with the willing co-operation of the Nigerian government. There is no doubt that Western militaries have far greater capabilities than does Nigeria’s, and it’s possible that an armed intervention of the type undertaken by France in Mali might substantially weaken Boko Haram. But this risks playing into Islamist narratives about Western imperialism. And a successful counter-insurgency also requires denying insurgents the support of local populations. Such a hearts-and-minds campaign is beyond what any Western ally of Nigeria is willing to undertake at the moment.

“Boko Haram is a homegrown movement that has fed off deep resentment in northern Nigeria about a whole variety of issues that the U.S. and France and China and other countries that have offered assistance in tracking Boko Haram and rescuing the girls cannot resolve,” says Coleman. “The Nigerian government has to resolve it.”

The Nigerian government, however, has not shown that it can, and the international assistance offered so far is unlikely to change that. The stolen schoolgirls are symptoms of deeper problems plaguing Nigeria: a raging insurgency, an incompetent state, and the ongoing misery of the people caught between them. The schoolgirls’ plight has focused international concern on Nigeria. But this attention is temporary. Eventually, probably soon, the world will look away, and other girls will be taken.