Boko Haram Bounces Back

As parts of Nigeria fall to extremists, the threat of regional trouble grows.

For a while, it seemed, the Al Qaeda affiliate known as Boko Haram was in retreat, forced out of Nigeria’s northern cities, and no longer capable of mounting large-scale attacks. But in recent weeks, as Reuters has reported, the organization is “regrouped, rearmed” and active in a growing swath of the northeastern part of the county. Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, admitting that Islamic insurgents are in control there.

Boko Haram’s methods have been brutal: Earlier this month, some two hundred members of the jihadist group arrived in the northeastern town of Bama, in buses and pickup trucks. They attacked an army barracks and a police station, killing forty-two people. They also hit a prison, releasing one hundred inmates, many of whom are believed to be members of the group.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has killed at least three thousand people, according to conservative estimates. One of the group’s enthusiasms is murdering Christians on Christmas in their churches, as it did last year and the year before. But it doesn’t wage war only on Nigerian Christians (roughly half the population). It also attacks Muslims who disagree with its goals or methods—or who just get in the way.

Boko Haram has declared its enmity toward the United States, Britain, Israel and “Crusaders” whoever and wherever they might be. It has sent fighters to Mali to fight French and African troops.

One attack that received more attention than most: In 2011, a Boko Haram operative from Cameroon, Nigeria’s neighbor to the east, drove a car into a United Nations building in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, setting off a bomb that killed twenty-one people.

Members of the group have reportedly painted “Revolution Now!” on the walls of churches they have attacked. The group has proclaimed that “no force on Earth can stop it from Islamizing the whole of Nigeria,” and it has vowed to “make the country ungovernable, kill and eliminate irresponsible political leaders of all leanings, hunt and gun down those who oppose the rule of Sharia in Nigeria, and ensure that the infidel does not go unpunished.”

The words, Boko Haram, mean “Western education is forbidden.” Among the ideas the group finds sinful is the claim that the Earth is spherical. Its members oppose what they see as Western science and, of course, Western culture as well.

At least some of Boko Haram’s funding has come from Europe: ransom paid in exchange for kidnapped Europeans. Recently, Boko Haram reportedly received $3.15 million from France and Cameroon for returning seven members of a French family kidnapped and threatened with death by a Cameroonian member of the group. American officials argue that such payments encourage additional kidnappings.

The Nigerian military has sometimes been effective in opposing the group but on other occasions its disregard for civilians has served to alienate ordinary Nigerians. Perhaps as a consequence, the Nigerian government now appears eager for a negotiated settlement—amnesty for Boko Haram murderers in exchange for an end to the conflict.

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer, has called that approach “abysmal appeasement.” While hardly an admirer of the Nigerian military, he also believes it is both immoral and counterproductive to negotiate with “mass murderers.” The choice, he said is simple and stark: Either society “goes down” or “a bunch of killers who are totally beyond control” go down.

His point may be moot, at least for now. A Boko Haram spokesman has said the group will “consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to its knees.”

Parts of the northeast may be on the verge of collapse and it is not clear what, if anything, Nigeria’s federal authorities can or will do about it. If that does happen, Boko Haram will have conquered territory bordering four African countries: Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. These nations have porous borders and weak central governments. Destabilizing them will not be difficult. It will also be easier for Boko Haram to link up with other al-Qaeda affiliates in the region, for example in Mali, Algeria, Libya and Somalia.

Al Qaeda’s affiliates are alive and well and lethal in the heart of Africa. The consequences are likely to be more far-reaching than many people assume.

Dawit Giorgis, a former senior Ethiopian government official, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.