The United Nations Security Council finally put the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on its terrorism list. As a result, its leaders’ foreign assets will be frozen, they will not be able to travel internationally, and the group will be subject to an arms embargo.
Given Boko Haram’s rampages, the move is long overdue. Unfortunately, however, the impact is likely to be limited: The group operates in remote northeast Nigeria and rarely leaves those confines. The only blow that Boko Haram will feel is one that hits them directly.
Boko Haram was founded in the late 1990s in northern Nigeria as an Islamic group that sought to spread its religious values and install an Islamic government in an area traditionally dominated by Christians. While it has always sought to impose Shariah law in areas under its control, it was originally a nonviolent sect. Its name — Boko Haram roughly translates to “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa-Fulani language — hints at its future evolution, however.
For its first seven years, the group was largely peaceful. That changed when the Nigerian government cracked down amid reports that the group had morphed into an anti-government group with criminals and disgruntled politicians and was arming itself. A series of violent clashes with the Nigerian security forces led to the deaths of as many as 700 people, among them the group’s founder and leader, Mohammad Yusuf, who died while in police custody.
The group went quiet for a few years, during which it picked a new leader, Abubakar Shekau, a “bookish theologian and ruthless killer” who was one of Yusuf’s deputies, and was reorganizing. It re-emerged in Borno, the gateway city of Nigeria’s northeast, and has since carried out a campaign of violence that has claimed over 1,000 lives.
Originally the attacks targeted government forces and politicians, but the decision to form civilian groups to back the government offensive against Boko Haram has meant that the group is now prepared to go after civilians too.
The result has been a virtual rampage, with almost daily attacks on villages. For example, on May 23 the group killed 29 farm workers in their fields, and laid waste to their village. In addition, Boko Haram has launched increasingly sophisticated bomb attacks in major cities. On May 20 a double bomb blast in the city of Jos killed 118 people. Nearly 174 schoolteachers have been killed in the last few years.
The group’s most notorious action, however, has been the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a school in northeast Nigeria last month. At first it was speculated that the girls were to be sold or forcibly wed to Boko Haram soldiers. Earlier this month the group offered to swap them for prisoners.
The kidnapping garnered international attention and forced the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to focus on the group. The government response has been confused.
At first, Boko Haram was dismissed as a marginal threat. The president’s wife speculated that the kidnapping was a political stunt to embarrass the government in the runup to elections next year, and military spokesmen claimed to have rescued most of the girls. Protesters demanding action were labeled terrorist dupes.
But as international pressure mounted and the Nigerian narrative of a nation on the move, riding the crest of an impressive economic performance, was replaced by the image of a shadowy Islamic jihadi group sowing terror unhindered, Jonathan changed his message.
Speaking to an international conference in Paris two weeks ago, Jonathan argued that Boko Haram is “the new frontier of the global war of terrorism …” After stiff-arming foreign assistance, he claimed that Boko Haram “is not anymore a challenge to Nigeria alone; it is a threat to each and every one of us in this room.”
With that change of heart, came a new international presence to help track down the girls and capture the group. Several dozen U.S. troops are now on the mission, and drones are flying over the densely forested region to try and find the girls.
The move to add the group to the U.N. terrorist list is another important step forward, but it also carries risks. The U.S. government had been reluctant to do that. It didn’t add Boko Haram to its own terrorism list until last November — for fear that such a move would raise the group’s international profile and tempt it to expand its target list to include U.S. facilities.
Fighting Boko Haram will be difficult. Emergency rule was declared with little effect in the three northeastern states where it operates. The Nigerian armed forces are overextended, the northeast part of the country is tough terrain, and the terrorists know it well.
There is speculation that the kidnapped girls have already been taken across the border. Equally disturbing are reports of human rights violations by the Nigerian military — charges the government denies — that fuel the insurgency. Failure to return the girls or capture the militants could increase the pressure for results — and lead to more abuses.
Nigeria needs help, but the first priority is to take this threat seriously. That does not mean burning down the forests that Boko Haram inhabits. It means recognizing the real source of the grievances that animate the group and its followers, and addressing them within the Nigerian political system.