Along with Friday's assault on a hotel in Bamako, Mali, the week has been a painful reminder that terror remains a serious threat in West Africa.
In much of the West, however, these latest attacks remain overshadowed by the outpouring of grief and anger after the shootings and bombings in Paris last week, which left at least 129 people dead. The continuing focus on the attacks in France has led to anger from some: Why didn't the Islamic State's bomb blasts in Beirut that killed 45 people garner the same reaction, for instance? The disheartening answer seemed to be that we are okay with considering Lebanon or West Africa a conflict zone, but France is where "we" live or vacation.
The new acts of violence in West Africa coincided with the release of a Global Terrorism Index from the Institute for Economics and Peace that dubbed Boko Haram the "most deadly terrorist group in the world." The report noted that there had been a dramatic surge in the Nigerian group's violence in 2014, with the number of deaths caused by the group surging by 317 percent to 6,644. Meanwhile, the Islamic State rose to 6,073 deaths. Together, the two group accounted for more than half of the terror-related deaths in the world.
These statistics suggest that the world could risk overlooking Boko Haram or dismissing West Africa's terror problem as a regional issue, just as the rise of the Islamic State was missed.
“The literally fatal conceit of all too many policymakers and analysts with respect to Boko Haram is to constantly underestimate it," warned J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. "This despite the fact that the group has repeatedly proven itself to be one of the most resilient of its kind and has constantly shifted not only in terms of tactics and operations, but also strategy and, indeed, ideology."
Interest in Boko Haram has ebbed and flowed over the past few years. After the group kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in April 2014, people from all around the world stood up to take notice of the group. #BringBackOurGirls became an international movement, and the U.S. government intensified its support of the Nigerian government's fight against the group. Early this year, reports of a Boko Haram massacre that left as many as 2,000 people dead in the northern state of Borno prompted a smaller though still notable international response.
However, the group hasn't created the same Western panic that the Islamic State has been able to. One factor here might be that the group appears to pose little threat to the average European or American, instead focusing its ire at the Nigerian government, its people and those in neighboring countries.
"Boko Haram haven't demonstrated any ambition beyond vague threats to expand their operations outside of Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad area," Andrew Noakes of the Nigeria Security Network explains. Indeed, in some ways, Boko Haram seems to be a far less ambitious group than the Islamic State, even going so far as to pledge allegiance to that group's so-called caliph.
Still, Boko Haram's attacks are not only on a terrible scale, as the IEP report makes clear, they also exhibit remarkable levels of violence. Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post's current Africa bureau chief who previously reported from Afghanistan, wrote earlier this year that the violence in Nigeria was a step beyond anything he had seen before. At least the Taliban made attempts to govern rather than just destroy and kill, he noted.
Boko Haram isn't the only major terror group in Nigeria, either: Another Nigerian group, referred to as the Fulani militants, are believed to have killed 1,229 people in Nigeria. Some reports suggest that this group has formed a link with Boko Haram, though its interests remain far more parochial (the nomadic Fulani people mostly seek greater access to land for their livestock).
If you wanted to rank the most important countries for the next century, Nigeria would likely come somewhere near the top. It's already Africa's most populous state and, by its own estimates, its largest economy. It's undergoing a population boom that leads some to suspect the country will have a larger population than the United States by 2050. It has a huge oil industry and is one of the largest hubs for Africa's nascent tech scene and booming entertainment industry. The country will likely remain a key U.S. partner in the region, though it will not always be an easy relationship.
Notably, the U.S. government has shown reticence when it comes to helping the Nigerian military, largely because Nigerian soldiers have been accused of serious human rights violations in their fight against Boko Haram. One Amnesty International report released in June said Nigerian troops had caused the deaths of more than 8,000 civilians since 2009. “Former detainees and senior military sources described how detainees were regularly tortured to death — hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits or interrogated using electric batons,” the report said, naming a number of Nigerian officers who it said should be investigated.
Instead, in October the U.S. government announced it had opted to send hundreds of soldiers to Cameroon, where they will operate a fleet of drones designed to conduct surveillance on Boko Haram. The move seemed to show continued official concern about Boko Haram, even in the midst of the fight against the Islamic State.
Perhaps that's prudent. Throughout the evolution of the Islamic State, that group has surprised those who dismissed it too easily. Boko Haram may have the ability to do the same. Noakes of the Nigeria Security Network points out that the recent surge in suicide bombings by the group seems to be a switch in tactics after the group lost ground to the Nigerian military. Now, Boko Haram's leaders seem to have begun an asymmetric war. "There appears to be no let-up in their ability to operate in this way, and it's unlikely to change until the long-term underlying drivers behind the insurgency are addressed," Noakes says.
The Atlantic Council's Pham posits a more worrying scenario: Perhaps Boko Haram actually poses a bigger threat to the world than the Islamic State, which at the least is hemmed in by powerful states like Israel, Turkey and Iran. "Just because the group has not yet shown the capability to launch an assault on targets in the West," he adds, "does not mean that it doesn’t aspire to do so should the opportunity present itself."
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