When the media and politicians discuss Islamic terrorism, they conjure specific images: Middle Eastern men, dressed in the traditional garb of the region, shouting in Arabic as they wreak havoc across their native lands. It’s a myopic view of Islamic extremism that has fostered intense racism and xenophobia, especially in the U.S. But the threat of Islamic extremism extends far beyond what flashes across our TV screens. Say what you will about ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah — the names with which the public has become familiar. As recent events underscore, Boko Haram may just be the most brutal extremist group operating today.
If you’re unsettled by gruesome details or prone to nightmares, you might want to skip this.
As the Independent reports:
Boko Haram extremists have burned a number of children to death in a hours-long attack that has left at least 65 people dead.
According to an eyewitness survivor — who hid in a tree to escape the attack — the terrorists set fire to the village of Dalori and shot people attempting to flee in the country’s north-east on Saturday evening.
Alamin Bakura said the shootings and burnings continued for four hours and he had lost several of his own family members in the attack.
The violence then continued as three female suicide bombers followed the survivors who managed to flee to the neighbouring village of Gamori before blowing themselves up — killing many more people.
Soldiers said that dozens of charred corpses and bodies with bullet wounds littered the streets in the village just three miles from Maiduguri — the birthplace of Boko Haram and the scene of a bomb attack by the group which killed at least 80 people in December.
According to a local security guard, Abba Shehu, the total death toll is unknown because bodies are still being recovered from the streets and the surrounding bush where insurgents hunted down fleeing villagers.
These horrific attacks have garnered international attention, but they’re far from an anomaly.
The name Boko Haram has been translated in a number of ways, but the generally accepted definition is “Western education is forbidden.” Originally named “Jamā’atu Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Da’wati wal-Jihād,” or “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad,” the group emerged in 2002 as Western powers were wielding military might to the north of Nigeria. The organization was deeply tied to the tensions fueled by colonial settlement of Nigeria in the early 1900s and the cultural unrest that has persisted for a century. At the time of its founding, the goal of Boko Haram was to establish Nigeria as an Islamic state under Sharia Law.
Though the group operated in a more or less peaceful fashion for the first seven years of its existence, reports of an increasingly militant culture put them at odds with Nigerian security forces. In late July 2009, riots broke out, with more than 700 members of Boko Haram ultimately dying, including their leader Mohammed Yusuf, purportedly during an attempted escape. With the organization wounded and flailing, Yusuf’s second-in-command, Abubakar Shekau, rose to power, and what had once been perceived as a potential threat grew into a deadly force to be reckoned with.
It started in 2010 when the group broke more than 100 of Boko Haram’s members out of prison. By 2011, they were launching small scale but persistent IED attacks on so-called “soft targets” with increasing frequency. They carried out more than 100 bombings that year, claiming more than 500 lives. In 2012, it was revealed that they had infiltrated both the government and military. They expanded their operations into Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. The death tolls associated with their attacks rose from dozens to hundreds.
The world was busy watching Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran to pay attention to a region where political instability seemed to be par for the course. Until, that is, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.
The kidnapping took place in April of 2014, with Shekau announcing his intention to sell the girls into slavery. All at once, the world was paying attention. On social media, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls took off, bolstered by support from figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama. Though there was occasionally the odd report raising hopes that the girls would be found or saved, that never happened. Social media outrage petered out, and reports today indicate that many of the girls were likely sold as brides… for the round price of $10.
The headlines you’ll see today and in the weeks to come reflect a fraction of the terror gripping the region. The actual death toll of Boko Haram attacks is incalculable, though official reports found them to be even deadlier than ISIL in 2014. So why don’t you hear about them? Why, in nearly a dozen presidential debates so far, has Boko Haram been mentioned only once, and, even then, only in passing?
Perhaps it’s cynical to say as much, but odds are the apathy is tied to Nigeria’s lack of regional significance to Western powers. Yes, Nigeria has oil. Yes, Nigeria is a member of OPEC. But its exports are dwarfed by those of other larger players, especially as drilling expands in other areas of the world. They don’t have access to weapons that could hit the U.S. They haven’t made it a priority to terrorize Western nations; only their own and their neighbors. They don’t threaten any U.S. allies. Though some predict that resource squabbles between the U.S. and China in Africa will eventually mirror the dynamic in the Middle East between the U.S. and Russia, that’s a spectre that haunts the distant future. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t look like the bad guys in the narratives woven to justify military action in the Middle East.
Put bluntly: we don’t hear about Boko Haram because we don’t care.
And we probably won’t until it’s too late.