U.S. battles against ISIL, strikes against Al Qaeda, and anti-Taliban efforts dominate headlines in the age of War on Terror. However, according to the Global Terrorism Index, there are not three, but four “most active terrorist groups.” When I moved back to the United States after spending my high school years in sub-Saharan Africa, I was shocked to find that Americans seemed to know very little of the fourth group, Boko Haram, despite its prominent role in global terrorism in recent years. Post-9/11, President Bush confidently proclaimed that we would “stop and defeat” every terrorist group of global reach. Instead, we have ignored the deaths of tens of thousands killed by our forgotten fourth: Boko Haram.
Boko Haram, translating to “Western education is forbidden,” is a Muslim extremist group centered in Nigeria, intent on punishing girls who seek education and establishing an Islamic caliphate. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in Chibok. (You may remember the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, which was a viral response to these kidnappings.) No Chibok girl was rescued or released until two years later, when only 23 of those 276 girls were found or released. From reports from these few, authorities learned that the kidnapped girls were compelled to convert to Islam, forced into marriage, raped, starved, and threatened with guns. Boko Haram kidnapped an additional 70 women before the end of 2014. 2014 saw a 300% increase in Nigerian terrorist attacks compared to the previous year.
In 2014, the Global Terrorism Index named Boko Haram the deadliest terrorist group of the year, having killed nearly 600 more than ISIL. This is especially significant because 2014 is thought to have seen ISIL’s peak. Combined, these two deadly organizations were responsible for 51% of 2014’s 32,685 terrorist-related deaths. Boko Haram has also caused widespread social instability, displacing 2.4 million in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger according to the U.N.. This has caused widespread food insecurity and has had serious economic implications.
Some argue that Boko Haram is largely ignored because it is on the decline. This year, instead of the deadliest terrorist group, it is the third deadliest. While true that the organization has lost much of its territory and seems to have lessened influence, the same is true of ISIL. ISIL now controls only a handful of outposts when its territory once spanned 56,420 miles, and is thought to be near defeat. Yet it still makes headlines.
Despite its decline, Boko Haram kidnapped over 100 girls from the Science and Technical College at Dapchi less than two months ago. Just two weeks ago, militants returned over 60 of the girls with a warning: don’t go back to school. The girls, now left to deal with the trauma, have only two choices: return to school and risk a Boko Haram retaliation, or stay home and forgo education. This is in no way a choice that these young girls should have to make, and is directly opposed to the values we, as Americans, hold dear. That we have largely ignored this hugely impactful terrorist group in order to focus combat on an equally terrifying ISIL is hugely hypocritical.
These same priorities were manifested when, on January 7, 2015, an ISIL attack killed 17 at a French newspaper agency. International outrage ensued, with an outpouring of solidarity (#jesuischarlie) and many calling it an attack on freedom of speech. Around the world, monuments went dark or lit up with the colors of the French flag in solidarity. Two days later, Boko Haram killed 2,000 in Baga, Nigeria. Sidelined by the attack in Paris, it took the U.S. government a week to issue a statement condemning the attack, and very little international response followed.
The Hebdo and Baga attacks may highlight the real reason Boko Haram has been left out of the terrorism discussion: its terrorist activities affect a corner of Africa where we do not have a lot of interest. The U.S. has had tense relations with the Nigerian government over the president’s corruption allegations and inability to combat Boko Haram. ISIL, however, has repeatedly targeted Westerners—sometimes in our own country. So, while ISIL and Boko Haram have caused arguably similar amounts of damage in various years, ISIL’s reach repeatedly affects our own people. If this is the true reason for the U.S.’s lack of response, then its claims that its War on Terror “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” cannot be true. In practice, this statement reads more like “will not end until every terrorist group that physically affects Westerners has been found, stopped and defeated.” Sadly, it seems that Boko Haram’s attacks on Western ideals are not enough to make it into this group.
If we are to truly claim to wage a war on terror, we cannot discount this group. Inaction seems to be a sign that the U.S. only cares about terror if it affects us or our Western compatriots. To genuinely combat terrorism, we must be educated about all four threats, and not solely focus on the groups that operate in the Western sphere. In waging a War on Terror, we claim to have the moral high ground: the home of the brave against extremist, mass murderers. Yet, our lack of response has allowed kidnappings, bombings, and murders. Far from morality, our disregard screams hypocrisy.