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.


Does America really care about Boko Haram?

  1. The article is good but your constant reference to these terrorist groups as “Islamist” is out of place. There is nothing Islamic about terror. Just because they claim they base their terror on their perceived or twisted understanding of Islam does not make them representative of Islam. They are anything but Muslim. A Muslim is one from whose hands and tongue other people are safe. A Muslim is one who cares for all. Love for all, Hatred for none is the gist of a Muslim life. As a journalist you need to do more research into what is the actual Islamic teaching before using labels.

    And in this day of technology, it is very easy to do research. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has been speaking about it for over a century, both through words and action.

    • You are conflating the words “Islamist” and “Islamic” incorrectly. These terrorists are basing their actions on their belief that secular education is haram. That kind of ideology is Islamist by definition.

    • Masood Nasir writes:
      “The article is good but your constant reference to these terrorist groups as “Islamist” is out of place.”

      What is out of place about saying what is true? Are we mistaken when the boko leader himself talks about Islam being the reasoning behind his actions. Should the writer have ignored this? It isn’t Christianity or buddhism that is causing the murder and mayhen in the world today; it is Islam.

      You can claim Islam is all about “love” as much as you want. The last time I looked,”Love” does not include spilling the blood of innocents with such fervor as we have seen repeatedly in the Muslim world. If you want people to see Islam as being a peaceful relgion of love and compassion….then perhaps you should speak to your fellow Muslim’s…because, apparently, they didn’t get the message.

      As for the journalist doing his research…..where have you been Masood? All the research needed to show that the journalist (finally) has done his job, is a quick perusal of any news station. The carnage we see in Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iran, etc..etc……has one thing in common. Can you guess what it is?

      As for the media ignoring this story…….almost. SUNTV has been reporting on Islamic fanatics for years. They have reported the body count caused by Muslim fanatics murdering Christians throughout Africa.

      I guess it took Michelle Obama holding up a cheap sign wearing a pathetic expression to get the media to take notice.

    • I agree with your observations. Media rarely emphasize when organizations like the Freemen and Army of God and people like Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder base or justify their terrorism on Christianity. Most of us who identify as Christians reject such terrorists as hypocrites who undermine and pervert the teachings of the New Testament.

      • Domestic terrorism is the biggest threat to the US….yet we treat Nigeria like it’s some unheard of event, and we’re so much better than that.

    • You are clearly insane. Merely being in deep denial doesn’t accurately describe your post. Since you truly believe what you wrote, and what you wrote is 100% wrong! you have no grip on reality and are thus insane. Islam is the coming ruination of mankind.

      • Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all Abrahamic religions and have a lot in common…

        • Lynda wrote:
          “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all Abrahamic religions and have a lot in common…:

          they do have a lot in common….however, it is where these religions diverge that is the concern.

          It is not the Jews and christians who reject civilized behaviour and engage in the slaughter of innocents. It is the followers of Mohammed who tend to be the purveyors of carnage.

          you don’t have to believe me…..just watch the news.

          wherever Islam goes…..mayhem and violence soon follow.

    • “Islamist” generally refers to a radical and fundamentalist version of Islam. This could be akin to fundamentalist Christian sects such as the Branch Davidian cult – an extreme version of a religion that is ostensibly based around worshiping God, fostering peace and loving others. I believe it is rather common to be a supporter of Islam while condemning radical Islamism.

  2. The original news reports, true or false, said the girls were writing a physics exam….and then were violently kidnapped and no doubt raped, used as slave labour and eventually murdered….because education is forbidden.

    Especially for girls.

    After Malala? No.

    So this act caught the world’s attention, and people set out to stop it. No more of this. And once that enormous spotlight of global attention was focused on Boko Haram….reports suddenly said the girls would be sold instead….and then it switched to a prisoner exchange….and if the pressure keeps up the girls might……….

    Why now? Why this kidnapping in particular?

    “There is a tide in the affairs of men………..”

    • Emily,

      This one caused an outcry for a very simply reason….the Boko leader made the video and put it on your tube. If the public hadn’t heard about it……nothing would have been done; not even the cheap social media stunt which calls for hashtag signs.

      The only way to stop this scourge, is by keeping the lawyers out of it…..and sending in WESTERN special forces…..with free reign, no camera’s, and no rules of engagement. Other than that……we’re just spinning our wheels.

      I’ve always said, we were training the wrong folks in the Muslim world. In afghanistan, we should have trained the women how to use the AK 47’s, and fight. The main enemy to Muslim women in these countries…..is Muslim men.

      • Well if nobody hears about it, of course nothing will get done.

        And no, invading another country everytime they do something we don’t like is over with.

        If you’re so keen to shoot someone, go join the military instead of talking tough on here.

        • Invading countries like….ummm…

          Germany? Italy?

          yeah..that never works.

          • No, it doesn’t work. You probably drive, or know others that drive, a Japanese or German car…..I doubt you can afford Italian.

            Now stop living in the past, and try to cope with today’s world….where Nigeria btw is half Christian and half Muslim.

          • Emily deluded:
            “No, it doesn’t work. You probably drive, or know others that drive, a Japanese or German car…..I doubt you can afford Italian.”

            So I guess the 2nd World War was a waste of time in your opinion?
            I don’t buy Italian….I buy cars made in Canada. (by the way….if it wasn’t for us Invading countries like germany or Italy during that time….you may be driving a German Car……….but most Europeans would probably also be speaking German.

            Now stop living in the past, and try to cope with today’s world….where Nigeria btw is half Christian and half Muslim.”

            Unfortunately Emily….the problem is not with the WEST (or me) trying to live in the past. The problem is with Muslim’s, who’s culture and ideology hasn’t evolved beyond the 7th Century. though…they do like the technology we have invented for them.

            As for Nigeria…you are correct. Again, unfortunately, the Muslim half is doing it’s level best to eliminate the Christian half. Given your views on all religion though…..I don’t assume you give a fig one way or the other. Same crap…different pile right?

          • No we shouldn’t have been in WWII…both of them were civil wars in Europe

            However the topic here is Nigeria and the 21c.

            The only thing we’ve EVER tried is violence…and with globalization we can’t do that anymore. The culture there has to be changed…all religions regard the woman as inferior

            PS And Canada doesn’t make any cars.

          • Emily wrote:
            “No we shouldn’t have been in WWII…both of them were civil wars in Europe”

            Emily, before you make such an uneducated comment as this…..maybe you should look up what a “civil war” is.

            As for Nigeria in the 21st Century……the goal to eliminating the boko’s, is to ensure it stays in the present. If the boko’s get their way, Nigeria will be stuck in the 7th Century.

            As for Canada not making any cars….hmmm…..

            ever been to Oshawa?

        • Emily: your comment that WW1 was a civil war is puzzling. I have always understood a civil war to mean a war within a country’s own borders. I had always assumed Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Belgium, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, North Africa, the Middle East etc etc. Hardly a civil war but if you can provide evidence that Germany’s war was confined to Germany from 1939 – 1945 I will bow to your always superior wisdom and knowledge and admit I was wrong.

          • A civil war is an internal war. This was internal to Europe. Nothing to do with the rest of us. We should have stayed out of it and let them fight it out.

          • This comment has been removed.

      • Special Forces or any military troops will only get you so far. What’s needed is money and training to bolster the Nigerian Police and Army to “own” the areas that Boko Harum flourishes in. Until that happens you can kill their leadership all you want but they will reappear with new leaders.

        • We will always have more bullets than they have leaders.

          We’ve already tried it your way……..

          Time to be ruthless.

  3. As tragic and horrific as these events are, why is the West getting involved in what I call domestic conflicts? Because Nigeria has oil.

  4. Folks, no matter what, it’s still about oil.

  5. Well they’ve found them, and they’re alive. Now the trick is getting them out.

    • Emily wrote:
      “Well they’ve found them, and they’re alive. Now the trick is getting them out.”

      Strange, Emily…..I thought you were of the “we should mind our own business” crowd?

      As for the trick of getting them out….I’ve already explained it to you above. I’ll try it again….see if you can follow the plan. I’ll break it down into easily understood steps.

      Step One: See a boko terrorist.
      Step Two: Shoot the boko terrorist in the face.

      Step three….repeat as required.

      See, Emily. Sometimes the best solution, is also the most obvious.

  6. millions have been killed by US ‘officially sanctioned’ terrorists all over the world in the last 10-50-200-pick a number – does anybody care?

  7. As Charle De Gaulle so succinctly pointed out, nations do not have friends they have interests. Right now Nigeria (especially the North) is of no substantial interest to the US, Canada or other Western nations. It will become an interest if the oil begins to stop flowing but there is a lot of oil in the world these days and shutting of Nigerian oil would not be a major problem for the West.

  8. How did you brain dead liberals at MacLeans come up with a headline that has nothing to do with the article? Oh yeah, America-bashing for the sake of it. You have your dream, do-nothing Muslim-appeasing liberal American president doing exactly what liberal doves want, and you still whine about hypocrisy. The irony of your own hypocrisy escapes you. The fact that liberals the world over are handing the world over to Islamists is further proof that liberals are totally insane.

    • I think you meant brain-dead, not brain dead (sic)

    • We don’t ‘own’ the world Mac, so we can’t ‘hand it over’ or deny it to others. There are over a billion Muslims. Same numbers of Indians and Chinese.

      Face it, white people are a minority. Always have been.

      • I sometimes wonder about the awareness of many people. Did it ever occur to you that Muslims belong to a specific religion and are of every nationality while Indians and Chinese are most likely members of a nationality, may be of many races, and may be any religion; of course, if you are referring to indigenous North Americans then they are likely members of a tribe and I have no idea what religions they believe in.

        • There are over a billion Muslims.

          There are over a billion Chinese.

          There are over a billion Indians. [Indians come from India.]

          There are over a billion Africans.

          That’s 4 billion people right there.

          The ‘west’….white people…don’t get to tell them what to do.

          • Unfortunately you confuse religion and nationality-ethnicity. Thera are several hundred million “white” Muslims so skin colour has nothing to do with your point. You may not like this but in many ways the “West” does tell the rest of the world what to do because it has the power currently to do so. This will not always be true but might Is a powerful persuader.

          • yeah….we white folks are a minority.

            we just happened to have provided the other folks with pigmentation the ability to fly, drive, call on the phone….electricity…modern medicine. ….eetc…etc…

            Hmm……maybe WE should be the folks demanding payment for providing civilization and the rule of law to others’.

  9. Obama never did denounce Sunni Islam. Think about it. Lots of lips a moving with no intent of doing anything tangible. I doubt we will ever see Obama make a move against any Sunni Islam….

    • What does this have to do with anything?

  10. Let’s not forget that Boko Haram abducts young girls and just BRUTALLY KILLS THE BOYS. But boys are expendable so no hashtag for that.

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