How Obscurity Helps Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror

Soldiers and government officials inspect a bridge linking Nigeria and Cameroon following an attack by Islamic militants in Gambaru, Nigeria.

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Soldiers and government officials inspect a bridge linking Nigeria and Cameroon following an attack by Islamic militants in Gambaru, Nigeria.

The killings in France struck directly at the core Western values -- and kept the world's attention away from a new, disturbing tactic in Nigeria's bloody conflict. By John Campbell

In the aftermath of the January 7 Islamist terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a separate but apparently related January 9 attack on a Jewish supermarket, both in Paris, over 3 million demonstrated throughout France in solidarity against terrorism. In Paris, demonstrators numbered some 1.6 million.

There were also companion demonstrations in London, Washington, and other cities. Europeans are comparing the trauma caused by the attacks as similar to that of 9/11 in the United States. According to the New York Times, President Francois Hollande was joined by more than forty heads of government or heads of state, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and many African heads of state. (The absence of high-level Obama administration representation is curious.)

On January 10, at a market in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, a suicide bomber, a girl perhaps as young as ten years of age, killed herself and at least twenty others and wounded an unknown number. On January 11, two female suicide bombers, one perhaps fifteen years of age, killed themselves and four others in the city of Potiskum, according to Agence France-Presse. Potiskum is in northern Nigeria’s Yobe state. Borno and Yobe have long been venues of Boko Haram operations. However, the militant jihadist movement has as yet not claimed responsibility for either attack.

Earlier in January, Boko Haram defeated the Nigerian Security Forces at Baga. The fighting, and a subsequent Boko Haram massacre, resulted in at least 2,000 deaths.

Boko Haram and the French militant jihadists use a similar rhetoric. Yet the attacks in France and Nigeria are almost certainly unrelated. Instead, both reflect the unique circumstances where the attacks took place. France was the colonial power that dominated North Africa and Syria. France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, mostly of North African origin. Its integration has been difficult and incomplete. The killers in France appear to have been French citizens of Algerian origin, and some may have been trained by al-Qaeda affiliates. In Nigeria, Boko Haram flourishes in a predominately Muslim part of the country that is poor (and getting poorer), perceives itself as politically marginalized, and is open to radical Islamist influences. Ties between Boko Haram and international jihadist movements appear to be weak.

Total casualties from the January 7-9 attacks in France were seventeen, and in Nigeria the suicide attacks seem to have claimed about twenty-six. Killings in northern Nigeria associated with Boko Haram since May 2011 number at least 10,501, according to theCouncil’s Nigeria Security Tracker. Yet the killings in France now dominate Western discourse, while the little attention devoted to those in Nigeria is focused on the sensational use of child suicide bombers. The difference in Western attention commanded by the two is not entirely media bias. The attacks in France go directly to the core Western values of freedom of expression, and they took place in one of the West’s greatest cultural capitals. (As Thomas Jefferson allegedly said, “Every man who loves liberty has two countries, his own and France.”) The attacks also play on anxiety generated by non-European immigration. By contrast, the Boko Haram attacks occur in an isolated part of Africa, far even from the Nigerian metropolis of Lagos. Further, in Nigeria, Boko Haram appears to be (among other things) engaged in a civil war against other forms of Nigerian Islam. In the context of upcoming national elections, its attacks bear little relevance to people outside northern Nigeria – even in Lagos.

That said, there is no question that the use of child suicide bombers in northern Nigeria is a new threshold of horror.

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