Why Does the Obama Administration and the Media Downplay Boko Haram?
February 6, 2015
Newt Gingrich and Audrey Bird
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The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram killed as many as 2,000 people last month in an attack that destroyed several villages there. Although the scale of the massacre places it among the most deadly attacks by radical Islamists since 9/11, President Obama chose not to mention it in his State of the Union address two weeks later.
The relatively little attention the White House and the news media has paid Boko Haram is extraordinary. The group killed more people last year in Nigeria alone than Ebola killed in all of Africa. The London Telegraph estimated in June 2014 that Boko Haram has more than 9,000 fighters. (By comparison, they estimated ISIS has just over 12,000 fighters.) Nigeria, where the group is based, is the most populous country in Africa, and its oil resources also make it among the wealthiest countries in Africa. If Boko Haram ever gains enough momentum to destabilize Nigeria, it will be in a formidable position.
Given this situation, you would think there would be some curiosity about where the group came from and what motivates its fighters. The press and the Obama administration, however, have shown only the shallowest interest.
Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim sect leader, founded Boko Haram in 2002, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Yusuf’s goal was to form a militant Radical Islamist group in Nigeria to identify with the international Islamist movement.
His first base camp was called “Afghanistan” in honor of the Taliban, whose dedication to a strict interpretation of sharia law had impressed Yusuf. The Taliban had recently proven its devotion to Allah by destroying two massive sixth-century Buddhist statues carved into the mountainside. The Taliban had considered them “idolatrous.”
Yusuf’s new movement chose a name that embodied its goals and its Islamist roots. As the BBC reported, “The official name of the Boko Haram group is actually Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means ‘People of the Sunnah (the practice and examples of the Prophet Muhammad’s life) for Preaching and Jihad Group’.”
Of course, the group is better known as “Boko Haram”, which translates to the much more direct “Western education is a sin”.
Given that its name condemns Western education, it should come as no surprise that the organization is known for attacking schools and murdering students.
Boko Haram began as a small group that conducted infrequent attacks. Over time, however, the group took root in northern Nigeria and began to grow. By early 2014, it had become a frightening force that was terrorizing a significant portion of northern Nigeria. Yet the news media and the U.S. government mostly ignored it.
This changed on April 14, 2014 when Boko Haram attacked a school for girls and kidnapped 234 students. The incident was horrific enough to finally gain our attention.
Yet the response of the most powerful nation in the world was underwhelming. Faced with a real “war on women,” Washington jumped onto a Twitter campaign called #BringBackOurGirls.
President Obama, speaking as though he were a passive observer, expressed on Good Morning America that he hoped the event would help “mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.”
The White House announced it would send a team of military and law enforcement officials to assist the Nigerian government.
Not surprisingly, none of this worked. The Twitter campaign failed to impress Boko Haram. In fact, it actually prompted radical Islamist leaders to send out videos mocking the West’s toothless gestures.
While America tweeted, the Nigerian girls were being given an ultimatum. They could either convert to Islam and be forced into underage marriages, or be sold as sex slaves.
With the exception of a few girls who managed to escape on their own, the kidnapped girls remained in the hands of Boko Haram. News media coverage of the story lasted two or three weeks. And while Boko Haram became even bloodier and more destructive in the months that followed, ISIS soon replaced it as the terror group of the moment.
Since a geographic analysis of the radical Islamist threat is the current mode of choice, the news media (and therefore the governing establishment) can only focus on one front at a time without becoming confused. So instead of treating Boko Haram and ISIS as two parts of the same problem–the worldwide radical Islamists movement–they treat the groups as regional concerns, challenges for the Middle East or for Nigeria.
Such analysis makes sense only if you believe, as Secretary Kerry put it at Davos recently, that Islamist terrorism is a problem not of sincere fanatics but of “marginalized youth,” with “poverty…in many cases” being “the root cause.”
This profoundly mistaken view of what motivates our enemies obscures the larger threat, as our leaders hopscotch from incident to incident without a strategy to address the true root cause. So the recent attack at Charlie Hebdo in Paris replaced ISIS as the story of the week. Then, as the President gave his State of the Union address–declaring victory over ISIS in his own mind–radical Islamists were overrunning the capital of Yemen and threatening its pro-American government.
This confusion among our elites has certainly hindered our response to Boko Haram and perhaps given the group the opportunity to grow stronger. The longer Boko Haram is able to expand and develop cadres of trained fighters, the greater the danger that it will metastasize into a threat to all of sub-Saharan Africa.
We urgently need to develop a global strategy for fighting the radical Islamist movement. A plan to defeat Boko Haram will have to be an integral part of that larger war–whether we choose to ignore it for now or not.