In January, the world’s single largest terror attack since 9/11 was carried out by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group in northern Nigeria. That incident, which drew only passing notice from the West, saw the slaughter of 2,000 civilians in the border town of Baga. Boko Haram’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State last weekend raises questions about how this will affect the group. Given Boko Haram’s demonstrable ruthlessness in Baga, a better question would be, why aren’t we aiming to “degrade and destroy” it, too?
Boko Haram shares IS goals of overthrowing existing governmental structures for an extreme theocracy. It has been learning from and competing with IS’s strategies even before the pledge. For the past six years, it has been waging holy terror and controlling territory in its own right.
Boko Haram is thought to be only one-third the size of IS and has attracted fewer foreign fighters, but its attacks have been far more lethal. A Homeland Security report for 2009-2013 Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), ranks Boko Haram as the third most lethal terrorist organization, after the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups.
Boko Haram, the Council on Foreign Relations estimates, killed 10,000 people last year, mostly in Nigeria’s Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Boko Haram has murdered citizens of over 15 foreign countries (though no Americans) and kidnapped many others, including a French family who was reportedly ransomed for $3 million. It has also displaced over 2 million people.
Among Boko Haram’s favorite civilian targets are Christian churches, hundreds of which have been bombed or burned in a sweeping religious cleansing campaign. Living up to the group’s name, which means “Western education is a sin,” Boko Haram targets schools teaching modern, secular subjects, and has forced the shuttering of all Borno’s schools.
Its militants hunt through neighborhoods at night, ferreting out Christian men and executing them if they refuse to convert to Islam. As 16-year-old Deborah Peter told me, in 2012, jihadists burst into her family’s living room and put a gun to her father’s head, demanding he renounce his Christian faith. When he whispered a prayer in “Jesus’ name” instead, they pulled the trigger. They then executed her teenage brother, who pleaded for his life, saying he was likely to grow up to be a Christian pastor like his dad. Paying a jizya tax or exile were not options.
Boko Haram pioneered the first large scale abduction of women for jihadi “brides” when last April it abducted 276 school girls in Borno’s mostly Christian town of Chibok. Though it regularly kidnaps girls, this act, due to sheer size, succeeded in launching Boko Haram into world headlines, triggering the White House-backed twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Not to be outdone, two months later, the Islamic state kidnapped and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women from Iraq’s Mount Sinjar.
Recently, Boko Haram has increased its attacks on crowded marketplaces and bus stops, indiscriminately murdering moderate Muslims and Christians, alike. It uses suicide bombers –including young girls and even a ten year old— raising questions whether any are the still-missing Chibok schoolgirls. Scores are being killed this way every week now.
While Boko Haram is already well-versed in ultra violent tactics, it draws inspiration from IS. In August 2014, a month after the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate from Mosul, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau declared a caliphate from the northeastern Nigerian town of Gwoza. Boko Haram is becoming rooted in Africa’s most populous country and was the ostensible reason for the postponement of presidential elections last month (now rescheduled for March 28).
Boko Haram’s violence is now escalating across the borders into Chad, Cameroon and Niger, posing a regional threat and making a bigger footprint than IS’s. It has recruited foreign fighters from Niger, Mali, Chad, Egypt and Pakistan and a few French nationals. The fact that Boko Haram does not have among its ranks any Americans or many Westerners who could return home may partly explain why this group remains a security policy backwater. While its foreign contingent is nowhere near IS’ 20,000, this could quickly change if it now begins to benefit from IS tech savvy on social media. A recent video already shows Boko Haram becoming more sophisticated.
President Obama identifies the greatest global security threats as “radical groups exploit[ing] grievances for their own gain,” who “come from the Middle East and North Africa” — not from West Africa, Boko Haram’s base. The US has tied cooperation on fighting this terror threat to Nigeria’s elections – elections which Boko Haram has vowed to block — and its engagement with Nigeria’s military has been limited partly due to the latter’s poor human rights record and US’ policy inconsistency.
With IS’ acceptance of Boko Haram’s fealty, it has gotten its Varsity letter, playing for the world’s most infamous terrorist team. As an IS’ franchise in sub-Saharan Africa, Boko Haram requires a more robust American strategic response. Global Jihadists should not make allegiances faster than the international community can make responsive alliances. It took IS a week to accept BH into its caliphate. It took the US 27 months after BH bombed the first American before the US designated it a Foreign Terrorist organization – something the Clinton-led State Department refused to do.
Emmanuel Ogebe is a Nigerian human rights lawyer.