Boko Haram and the Failure of Obama's Counter-Terrorism Strategy

During Hillary Clinton’s tenure, the State Department failed to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization, in spite of the fact that Boko Haram had become second only to the Taliban as the deadliest terrorist organization. Clinton will rightly have to bear blame for that, but the lack of a designation also reflects the much deeper problem of the Obama administration’s overall approach to Islamic extremism. It is an approach that has led to bad policies, not only with regard to Boko Haram, but also to Iran, the Syrian rebels, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Benghazi.

The heart of the problem is that President Barack Obama and many of his top counter-terrorism advisers see Islamic extremism from the leftist perspective of social movement theory. Originating in the socialist labor movements of the 1800s and revived with the protest movements of the 1960s, social movement theory seeks to understand collective action. Academics concerned with what they saw as the relationship between “cultural imperialism” and “Islamic movements” began looking at Islamist extremism through the lens of social movement theory around 1984. It might have remained an obscure academic pursuit but for the fact that Obama elevated one of its principle proponents, Quintan Wiktorowicz, to the position of Senior Director for Global Engagement at the National Security Staff, where he became an architect of Obama’s counter-extremism strategy.

The singular impact of Wiktorowicz was to shift the focus away from the ideology driving Islamic extremism and to recast it as “Islamic activism.” He argued that Islamist violence is not a function of the call to jihad found in the Qu‘ran or in various contemporary fatwas, but is rather a calculated and rational response to state oppression:

In contrast to popular views of Islamic radicals as fanatics engaged in irrational, deviant, unpredictable violence, we argue that violent contention is the result of tactical considerations informed by the realities of repressive contexts. Islamists engage in a rational calculus about tactical efficacy and choose modes of contention they believe will facilitate objectives or protect their organizational and political gains. Violence is only one of myriad possibilities in repertoires of contention and becomes more likely where regimes attempt to crush Islamic activism through broad repressive measures that leave few alternatives. …From this perspective, violent Islamist contention is produced not by ideational factors or unstable psychological mentalities but rather by exogenous contingencies created through state policy concerning Islamists.

Thus, terrorism becomes “a mode of contention,” and terrorists are not to blame for their violence; “exogenous contingencies” are at fault. Sources in the Koran, Islamic jurisprudence, or even contemporary calls to jihad are not to blame; state policy is. Dr. Mohammed M. Hafez, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who also influenced U.S. policy, echoes this perspective in his book Why Muslims Rebel:

Muslims rebel because of an ill-fated combination of institutional exclusion, on the one hand, and on the other, reactive and indiscriminate repression that threatens the organizational resources and personal lives of Islamists. Exclusionary and repressive political environments force Islamists to undergo a near universal process of radicalization.

Radical Islamists, therefore, bear no personal responsibility for their acts of terrorism or disruption. Rather, they are forced by a political environment that excludes or represses them to undergo an inevitable process of radicalization.

For the Obama administration, Islamist extremism (except for Al Qaeda) is not a categorical evil which stands opposed to America’s good; it is, rather, an extreme expression—among a range of expressions—of protest against legitimate grievances. Islamic radicals such as Boko Haram are not responsible for their actions; they are forced to radicalism by their circumstances. And it definitely has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, not even a distorted version of Islam. 

On the very day that the U.S. announced the designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “Boko Haram’s activities call our attention not just to violence, but also to poverty and inequality in Nigeria.” The State Department’s 2012 report on human rights in Nigeria spends far more time on abuses by Nigeria’s security forces than it does on Boko Haram's violence. The report states, “The population’s grievances regarding poverty, government and security force corruption, and police impunity and brutality created a fertile ground for recruiting Boko Haram members.” By all accounts, police brutality and incompetence in Nigeria were on an epic scale, but as Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) famously said at a hearing on Boko Haram, to blame terrorism on poverty is a disservice to the millions of poor people across the globe who never turn to violence. 

Because of the Muslim-extremist-as-victim meme, the administration generally, and the State Department particularly, have repeatedly portrayed Muslims as the principle victims of groups such as Boko Haram, with Christians only a minor side note. The State Department has repeatedly said that Boko Haram is not religiously motivated and is more destructive to Muslims than to Christians. On the day Boko Haram was designated an FTO, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said that Boko Haram “had killed numerous Christians and an even greater number of Muslims,” in spite of the fact that attacks on Christians represented 46% and on Muslims only 3%, according to Jubilee Campaign.

The argument currently being put forth by the mainstream media is that the United States has been poised and ready to help Nigeria, but that Nigeria has been slow to ask, and that is a message likely coming directly from the White House. Now that the world has woken up to the evil being perpetrated by Boko Haram, President Obama is trying to portray himself as caring deeply about this issue. He told ABC News that he hoped the event would help “to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that's perpetrated such a terrible crime." And Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign that read: "#BringBackOurGirls." 

But members of the Obama administration—from the President himself to his National Security Staff to his Secretary of State and to his undersecretaries and their staffs—have all, until this episode, downplayed Boko Haram’s truly evil nature and prevented steps from being taken much earlier that could have prevented this tragedy, and those 276 abducted girls, instead of being held hostage, could still be sitting at their desks doing their schoolwork.

While social movement theory might provide insights into the formation and operation of Islamic activists, it cannot provide a foundation for American counter-terrorism policy. To do so is both detrimental to U.S. national security and to the security of numerous nations who are in a life-or-death struggle with the threat. The United States must stop the misguided narrative that terrorism and extremism have nothing to do with Islam. As Dr. Sebastian Gorka said in testimony to members of Congress, “We need to bankrupt transnational jihadist terrorism as its most powerful point: its narrative of global religious war.” Until the U.S. begins to acknowledge and address the ideology, we will not be able to challenge its ability to recruit, motivate, and inspire those who would abduct innocent schoolgirls.


Katie Gorka is the president of the Council on Global Security. She is the coeditor of Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism.


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