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Beating Boko Haram

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
May 10, 2014
Foreign Affairs


The abduction last month of 276 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has become international news. In a video that surfaced this week, Boko Haram's leader issued a chilling message in which he called the girls "slaves" and threatened to "sell them in the market." Soon after, a social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls went viral. And this week, First Lady Michele Obama even tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign with the campaign's hashtag. Governments around the world, including those of the United States and China, have offered to help track down the terrorists.

It is surprising that it has taken so long for Boko Haram's murderous rampages to garner such attention. Although linked to various al Qaeda groups, Boko Haram is a homegrown movement in impoverished northeastern Nigeria. It was born of desperation and anger at the government's corruption and ineffectiveness. As oneNigerian journalist put it, Mohammed Yusuf, the group's first leader, "would have found it difficult to gain a lot of these people if he was operating in a functional state. But his teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, [and] the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wildfire."

Like the group's roots, its aims are local. Its harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam rejects Western and secular influences and calls for the establishment of a "pure" Islamic state in Nigeria. To that end, the group has been committing heinous attacks across the country's north for years, frequently targeting schools. In a particularly gruesome incident in February, Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in the north, killing dozens of teenage boys in the night. Some were burned alive. In that raid, the girls were spared. They were told to return home, renounce secular education, and get married.

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