On April 14 militants from Boko Haram, a Nigerian based terrorist network, kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Chibok village, Northern Nigeria. That same day a bomb blast rocked the Nigerian capital Abuja killing 75, followed by a second bomb blast on May 1 in Nyanya killing 19 and injuring 34.
Boko Haram took responsibility for these acts of terrorism and has threatened to sell the kidnapped girls, with Abubakar Shekau, a Boko Haram leader, saying:
“I abducted your girls…Allah has instructed me to sell them. They are his property and I will carry out his instructions.”
There has been widespread reporting on the kidnappings in the Australian and international media despite limited coverage since the group’s inception in 2002 and first attack in 2009. In Australia, few people outside of the Nigerian community or those engaged locally with refugees seem to have even a cursory knowledge of the group or their ideology. This is partly due to limited knowledge of the militants themselves and their operations; since 2009 Boko Haram have gone underground and there is no clear understanding of their command or internal make-up.
Yet one thing seem very clear – this is a new and particularly ugly example of the violence and extremism spreading in the name of Islamism, an ideology rooted in a politicised radical interpretation of Islam, but distinct from the large majority of Muslim believers. As noted by Michael Rubin in Commentary Magazine, the group have reinterpreted faith to justify horror and reject western thought and liberalism. In spite of this, some Australian commentators failed to mention the group’s religious views and radicalised ideology. Anyone who thought this dangerous phenomenon was subsiding in the wake of the 2011 killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has ample reason to think again.
Boko Haram literally means ‘western education is sinful.’ As noted by Amnesty International Boko Haram has killed 1500 people since the start of 2014 in attacks targeting schools, women, children and Christians. They are reportedly responsible for the abduction of hundreds of boys as part of its efforts to forcefully recruit children to fight for their cause.
The organisation was founded in 2002 by Islamists in Northern Nigeria to promote Sharia government and oppose the westernization of Nigeria. Boko Haram’s ideological and operational shift towards Jihadism in 2009 can be traced back to the ascension at the time of Mallam Sanni Umaru as the group’s leader and his decision to openly endorse and align with al-Qaeda, stating:
“Boko Haram is just a version of al-Qaeda, which we align with and respect. We support Osama bin Laden, we shall carry out his command in Nigeria until the country is completely converted to Islam, which is according to the wish of Allah.”
Following the death of bin Laden, documents were found in his Abbottabad compound demonstrating ongoing communication and co-operation between al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. The militants began to expand their reach beyond educational institutions as part of a wider insurgency to undermine the Nigerian government and majority-Christian south and shortly after the death of bin Laden on 26 August 2011 attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja, killing 23 and injuring 80 others.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism describe how militants paint ‘infidel’ markings on Christian doors in the Muslim-majority north and cite the number of victims [1,132 in 2012] as greater than the combined Christian casualties in conflict-ridden Pakistan, Syria, Kenya and Egypt in that year.
Boko Haram was classified as a terrorist organization in 2013 by the US State Department and as noted by scholar Raymond Ibrahim of the Middle East Forum are “dedicated to eradicating Christianity and enforcing the totality of Sharia Law…to a purist group like Boko Haram, Muslims who intermingle with Christians or who accept Western education, are apostate infidels , also worthy of death.” The Forum goes on to describe numerous attacks against Christians, women and anyone associated with western education.
“Jihadi attacks on schools and colleges are actually common. In July, 40 Christians were killed in an attack on a boarding school in Yobe state, Nigeria. The dormitory was set on fire in the attack and those fleeing gunned down. A month earlier, 16 other students were shot dead in attacks on a secondary school in Yobe and another school in Borno.”
A state of emergency previously instituted by the Nigerian government to crack down on the group’s operations has been widely described as ineffective, and seems to have failed to dent the ability of Boko Haram militants to carry out attacks against the government, western institutions, and local minorities.
Boko Haram’s most recent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls, along with its attacks on Christians, educational and international institutions must be viewed in the context of not only its base aim of opposing western influence, but as part of a wider effort to undermine the government of Nigeria and impose an extreme version of Sharia law throughout the country. The Guardian outlines the intention of Boko Haram to create an Islamic state in Nigeria by destroying the legitimacy of the existing government in the eyes of its citizens and the world:
“Nigeria’s government is becoming increasingly nervous about security for the World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa, an annual gathering of the rich and powerful to be held in Abuja this week for the first time…[that] now threatens to be overshadowed.”
The statement by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau itself, ‘I abducted your girls’ and the threat to auction the victims forces citizens of Nigeria to confront a crushing reality; has Boko Haram grown so powerful that they can now act with complete impunity? Can the government protect its citizens? Is this a demand, a threat of future violence or an ultimatum confirming Boko Haram’s place in Nigeria?
Protests in Nigeria and across the world against the government’s inaction and a social media campaign have put huge pressure on the Nigerian government:
“In Nigeria, angry citizens contend authorities are not doing enough. They took to social media using hashtags #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters to demand more from the government, a move that appears to have ignited a global call for action.”
In response to this pressure as reported by the Christian Science Monitor the Nigerian authorities finally responded;
“Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan broke his long silence Sunday on the kidnapping of as many as 275 schoolgirls, announcing three weeks after their abduction that he has asked for international help in locating them…President Jonathan’s apparent inattention or unwillingness until now to deal with Boko Haram, whose insurgency reached the capital, Abuja, last month, has enraged Nigerians.”
The attacks, the widespread protests, the government’s inaction and the public calls by Jonathan for international assistance not only undermine the government but serve as a rallying call for Boko Haram. A public call for help to the US and the promise by Obama to send a team of experts to Nigeria to find the girls allows Boko Haram to propagandise both about foreign plots and about the government’s inability to protect its citizens. This comes in the wake of 8 more kidnappings of girls this week between the ages of 12 and 15 in Northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s statement ‘I abducted your girls’ wasn’t simply a threat, nor intended primarily as a form of extortion. It was an announcement of the group’s intentions, capability and resolve for future violence. These words were intended simply as a statement of fact.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and among the most important states on the continent. It population is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, with the former, who live mainly in the north, making up 50.5% of the population and Christians making up 48.2%. It is difficult to envision the corrupt, inefficient and frequently dysfunctional government in Lagos containing the Boko Haram threat quickly or without considerable bloodshed and mayhem with reports now emerging of a Boko Haram massacre leaving hundreds of victims in Northern Nigeria.
In addition to the potential for humanitarian disaster, Nigeria matters and so this conflict matters, both for Africa, and in terms of the continuing quest of al-Qaeda-linked groups to bring their ideology and style of total terror war to any place where Muslims live. It would be a terrible mistake for governments or pundits weary of the “war on terror” and determined to turn their attention to other matters to refuse to face the reality of both the horror and the strategic threat represented by Boko Haram and other groups linked to al-Qaeda and its ideology.