Skip to main content

Should U.S. fear Boko Haram?

By John Campbell, Special to CNN
October 1, 2013 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Campbell: Islamist Boko Haram suspected in slaughter of Nigerian students
  • He says the Nigeria-focused group opposes democracy, science, Western education.
  • If Nigeria, U.S. unite in "war on terror," the group is ripe to for al-Qaeda ties
  • Campbell: Nigeria pushes back hard at Boko Haram, but it doesn't seem to be going away

Editor's note: John Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007). Currently he is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. He is the author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink; a second, updated edition appeared in June. He writes the blog "Africa in Transition" and edits the Nigeria Security Tracker."

(CNN) -- Last weekend, suspected Islamic jihadists killed at least 40 students at a Northern Nigerian agricultural college, many while they slept. The Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker shows that jihadist-related attacks in Nigeria are increasing. Most of the victims in this violence are Muslim, but some are Christian.

While no group has claimed responsibility for Sunday's massacre, the Nigerian media assigns responsibility to Boko Haram, and the operation has the hallmarks of the group's previous massacres.

What is Boko Haram? It remains shrouded in mystery. Boko is the Hausa word for "book," and commonly refers to Western education. Haram is the Arabic word for "forbidden." Hostile to democracy, modern science, and Western education as non-Islamic, it is highly diffuse. For some adherents, religious, even apocalyptic, themes appear to be paramount.

John Campbell
John Campbell

They are looking toward the creation of God's kingdom on earth through violence against those they see as Islam's enemies, rather than the achievement of a political program. But, political opportunists and criminals also operate under the label of "Boko Haram."

The movement's umbrella appears to be a shared Islamic vocabulary of protest, a hatred of the secular government in Abuja and of a corrupt Nigerian political economy -- and a disposition toward violence. It is especially murderous toward members of the Islamic establishment that have "sold out" to Abuja.

It does not appear to have an overarching political structure, and Abubakar Shekau, the leader of perhaps its largest element, does not exercise universal command or control over many of its elements.

Does this pose a threat to U.S. or other Western interests? Should ties between the United States and the Abuja government strengthen under the guise of a common "war on terror," American interests -- though limited in Northern Nigeria -- could become a Boko Haram target, not least because "the friend of my enemy is my enemy."

Thus far, Boko Haram has shown little interest in the world outside of Nigeria and the Sahel. But the situation in Nigeria is dynamic, and it is possible that closer ties will develop between al-Qaeda and elements of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram threatens U.S. in video
2012: Who are Boko Haram?
Obasanjo: Boko Haram undermine security

The group was founded by Malam Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic preacher who was murdered by police in 2009 in a public episode that went viral on the internet. But, even with respect to Yusuf's core disciples, there is remarkably little hard information about their structure and leadership. After Yusuf's murder, leadership fell to his deputy, Abubakar Shekau. He normally communicates through videos, and has not been seen in person since Yusuf's death. His latest video appeared in September 2013.

The revolt's foot soldiers likely are drawn from unemployed youth in Northern Nigeria, a region of profound poverty. Many of them attended Islamic schools where they learned little other than to memorize the Quran. Often they are children of peasants, rootless if not homeless, in a big city. They can bond through a common radical Islamic sensibility, inchoate rage, and the prospect of earning a little money as terrorists.

Up until 2012, Boko Haram attacks appeared to be largely funded by bank robberies. One commentator credibly estimated that there had been several dozen since 2011. Boko Haram has successfully looted weapons from government arsenals. What is new is Boko Haram's use of suicide bombers. Suicide is anathema to West African culture, and had been unknown as a weapon of terror in Nigeria.

West African borders are porous, and travel between Nigeria and areas where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- the Salafi-jihadist militant group -- operates is easy. Yet, while there is evidence of communication between different groups in the region, there continues to be little sign that al-Qaeda's influence has been transformative. Instead of the international jihad, Boko Haram continues to be focused primarily on internal Nigerian issues. It shows little interest in southern Nigeria, let alone Europe or the United States.

Still, Nigeria's federal government is addressing Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist movement. On May 14 President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three northern states of Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno, where Boko Haram normally concentrates. But the heavy security presence, especially during the state of emergency in these areas, is dysfunctional. There is a downward spiral, with soldiers resorting to brutality on an increasingly hostile population. On the other hand, soldiers and police are primary targets of Boko Haram, and their casualty levels are high.

An endgame is hard to foresee. In the past, millenarian Islamic movements have burned themselves out, often under military pressure. There are few signs this process is under way. And the military appears incapable of controlling it. If Boko Haram is not going away, it is also unlikely to be able to overthrow the Nigerian state.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Campbell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT