Charlotte Lytton is a journalist based in London.
Americans are obsessed with the Islamic State.
Ninety-one percent see the terrorist group as a threat to the vital interests of the United States, according to a September Washington Post-ABC News poll . That same month, President Obama called the Islamic State one of the greatest terrorist threats facing the country. “These are barbarians,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC News later that month. “They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”
Yet the African Islamists of Boko Haram are just as deadly as their Middle Eastern counterparts. And few Americans are paying attention.
News outlets chronicle the Islamic State’s every bloody move. Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 28, America’s 24 most popular news sites published 3,293 articles that mentioned the group, according to an analysis for The Washington Post run by Whitney Erin Boesel of Media Cloud, a joint project of Harvard and MIT. During that same period — which included the Baga massacre, in which Boko Haram killed as many as 2,000 Nigerian villagers — just 544 stories mentioned Boko Haram.
By membership, Boko Haram is about one-third the size the Islamic State. But it has displaced 1.5 million Nigerian citizens, nearly as many as the 1.8 million Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State. (The numbers for Syria are difficult to tally, but as many as 200,000 people fled Kobane in the four days after the Islamic State began attacking that city.)
The Nigerian terror force has killed 10,500 to 18,500 people since 2011, according to the Council on Foreign Relations . Concrete numbers are hard to come by, but experts say the Islamic State has killed at least 6,000 people in Iraq and Syria since its offensive began last year, only a slightly higher rate with a much bigger corps.
True, the groups, and their conflicts, have many dissimilarities. The Islamic State is determined to make headlines. Its ranks are full of Western fighters with a penchant for flashy violence and a native knowledge of what Western journalists cover. It boasts a slick social-media presence, uploading gruesome YouTube videos of slaughters and mass graves. The group has beheaded at least three Americans, and it operates in the same theater where many U.S. soldiers lost their lives fighting for Iraqi stability.
By contrast, the Nigerian extremists intentionally float beneath the radar. They’ve destroyed at least 24 base receiver stations in the country’s northeast, hindering cellphone calls and the transmission of photos and videos. Fewer Western reporters work in the region, and the group hasn’t directly threatened the United States. Even many Nigerian officials have been silent on Boko Haram, intent on hiding reports of homegrown terrorism. Without local media, it’s even harder to expose the ugly truth of Boko Haram.
Still, the discrepancy in coverage reflects a certain hypocrisy. “Even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights,” Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013.
But in reality, we — journalists, politicians, most Westerners — worry primarily about our own national priorities and national security. That comes at a cost. “Boko Haram is one of the most lethal terrorist groups in the world . . . [and] the lack of coverage has disincentived an international response,” terrorism expert Max Abrahms said. “If Boko Haram were front-page news regularly, it would be harder for the international community to ignore that crisis.”