Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boko Haram: The "Other" Terrorist Attack

In early January, according to Amnesty International, Boko Haram terrorists in northeast Nigeria reportedly killed as many as 2000 people. Accounts of the attacks tell of bloodthirsty terrorists razing anything and killing anyone that they encountered on their rampage through Nigerian villages. The attacks have forced about 20,000 people to flee to neighboring countries for safe haven. Alarmingly, there are reports that Boko Haram has used young girls in their attacks, including a 10 year-old, who on the 10th, “detonated powerful explosives concealed under her veil at a crowded northern Nigeria market on Saturday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more.”

What’s more, national elections in Nigeria are scheduled for next month. There is strong international concern that this violence, as bad as it is already, could spike as voters head to the polls. In fact, the upcoming elections might have been a motivating factor in Boko Haram's mayhem, as reports indicate that the BH terrorists commanded those who survived not to participate in the polls. In fact, Ian Bremmer goes even further, making an interesting point: "Boko Haram wants to force the country’s electoral commission to cancel or indefinitely postpone the vote there. We’ll likely see at least some voting there, though only under heavy security, making it easier for losers to challenge the integrity of the results."

Alas, despite the large number of fatalities in Nigeria, the terror attacks there have gone largely underreported. It’s been the terror attacks in France that have dominated world news over the past week or two, pushing the Nigerian events to the back burner. Even though we now have a steady stream of 24-hour cable and satellite news outlets, as well as the Internet, media chatter and attention is still primarily driven by only issue at a time. Of course, the downside to that is that lots of other issues—at times, important issues—fly under the radar. The terror attack launched by Boko Haram is the latest example of the single-issue focus of the media. The brutality of Boko Haram has gotten barely a peep from news and policy journals, newspapers, etc., especially here in the States.

Of course, the idea of a single-issue media simply begs the question: Why has the media privileged the attacks in France over those in Nigeria? Why didn’t the events in Nigeria bump the coverage of France off the media’s agenda? Or at least, why didn’t the Nigeria and French attacks receive more equal coverage? After all, think of it this way: the Nigerian violence resulted in roughly 100 times the death toll of all events surrounding the French terror-counterterror violence. So what gives? What’s going on?
Well, just thinking about the US and its media, I can come up with a few factors:  

1. France is America’s friend and ally, its partner on a host of consequential issues; Nigeria isn’t.

2. Western Europe feels close to America, both geographically and in spirit and culture. Yes, France is closer in distance, but it’s more than that. Many within the US speak French, are knowledgeable about French history, and routinely travel there for business and vacation. Those things really don’t apply to Nigeria. And as a result, Nigeria feels remote and distant.
3. There are very low expectations of Africa. Within the States, the prevailing view of Africa is that it’s unstable and war-torn and violent. Such views don’t exist about France. So the terrorism in Nigeria likely generates a sense of sameness, that’s its not so abnormal. With respect to France, however, the terror attacks were framed as something completely different: that it’s an outlier incident, something out-of-the-ordinary, and thus more newsworthy.

Unfortunately, the relative media blackout on the Nigerian attack hasn't been confined just to the US. Basically, it’s held across the world. To explain this almost global media blackout, Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and a terrorism expert, put forward several general, universal arguments in a Tweet: (1) there aren't many experts on Boko Haram (2) Nigeria is plagued by a weak, ineffective local media (3) the Goodluck administration has likely tried to muffle news of attacks from getting out (4) racism.
In an interview with Fusion, Abrahms fleshed out his Tweet.
Boko Haram is not an official affiliate of al Qaeda, and there aren’t a lot of terrorism experts on this specific group, Abrahms said. Plus, there’s a weak media presence in that area in general, which means fewer photographers and reporters to cover the story. And the Nigerian government “has an interest in suppressing these kinds of stories.” (President Goodluck Jonathan is running for re-election next month. Voting will take place in areas controlled by Boko Haram.)
Another explanation: prejudice.
“Both the perpetrators and the victims are black, and I think if we were talking about 3,000 white people, there might be more attention, particularly in the West,” Abrahms said. The #bringbackourgirls hashtag, Abrahms speculated, connected with a wider audience likely because the victims were young girls, a particularly disturbing detail. (Boko Haram was also accused of using a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb at a market on Saturday, killing nearly a dozen people.)
Given all of the above, it seems that an important first step that we all can take is to help get the word out regarding the atrocities in Nigeria. This blog post is my effort to do so. Greater awareness of what’s happened in Nigeria is a good thing, and just might create some momentum--both inside Nigeria and internationally--for a resolution to the violence.

If you're looking for additional information on Boko Haram and the recent violence in Nigeria, here are some sources I encourage you to peruse:
The Council on Foreign Relations has a useful "Backgrounder" on Boko Haram.

Max Fisher has written a nice, short overview of what's happened in Nigeria.

Writing for WaPo's Monkey Cage, Hillary Matfess distinguishes Boko Haram from ISIS and AQ.

Ian Bremmer's piece for Time lists five "facts" that explain the threat from Boko Haram.

And if you're on Twitter, you might want to check out the Twitter feeds of Max Abrahms and Mia Bloom, two scholars who specialize on terrorism and have banged the drum regarding the violence in Nigeria, shining a light on the what's occurred and calling out for more world attention to the death and destruction there.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Friend in Need: Franco-American Relations in Light of Charlie Hebdo

 One thing about international relations that we have learned since 9/11: a mutual terrorist threat is not a strong enough foundation for two countries to establish a brad strategic partnership. In my blog post following the Boston bombing, I highlighted the fact that mistrust between Russia and the US hindered cooperation on a very real threat. The France-US relationship, while generally good, has not always been smooth. Perhaps my fears are misplaced, but I wonder if the US may not cooperate as much as we should with France because of fractures in our relations. I write this today to make an appeal against this possibility.

The France-US relationship is unique among America's bilateral relations. It is not nearly as smooth as the Canada-US or UK-US relationship, nor is it as antagonistic as the current state of Russia-US ties. But neither is it complicated in the same way that the so-called Pakistan-US alliance is (I personally consider Pakistan to be an outright enemy, but that is neither here nor there). The France-US relationship is peerless in the level and nature of it complication. Some authors, such as John J. Miller and Mark Molesky have gone as far as to call France "our oldest enemy", and I have also written on this blog about French intelligence operations against the US.

The most recent wave of Francophobia in the US came around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Of course there were general expressions of it such as the famous "freedom fries", and it even took on political undertones in the bitter presidential election of 2004 (I distinctly remember driving home from school one afternoon and seeing a bumper sticker that said "John Kerry for president of France", implying that Kerry was weak, as the French supposedly were). It seems that we quickly forgot how, shortly after 9/11, the prominent French newspaper Le Monde published a headline stating "Nous sommes tous Américains (We are all Americans)".

I'd like to take a moment and make an appeal, one that is partly based on the emotion of anguish I feel at the loss of life and shaken sense of security in France, on the security imperative of combating terrorism, and also on the basis of history. As an American, while pondering the deeper meaning of the attacks yesterday, I was struck by the fact that France played a major role in helping the United States to secure our own right to free speech. During the American Revolutionary War, French commanders such as La Fayette and Rochambeau played critical roles in securing the US victory, culminating in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. With this, the US was able to enact its First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. For better or worse, this means that we have to suffer the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, but we are also able to openly criticize our government and not have to worry about repercussions.

Later, Alexis de Toqueville traveled the nascent American nation and wrote his famous Democracy in America in which he extolled America's dedication to liberty. The work had a major impact on the political development of modern France. So in some way, we managed to return the favor, but not by a longshot.

The France-US relationship has deep roots, and what's more important, it is grounded in the preservation of liberty, the very fabric of our civilization. The US may not always see eye-to-eye with France, and we may often feel that the French are intransigent or difficult. Many on online discussion threads have even implied the French "had it coming" with its policy of allowing so many Muslims into the country. All that aside, I implore my fellow Americans to look back at the common bonds of history and the values we hold with France, and to support and assist our friends the French. This may be on a governmental level, or it may be on more of a people-to-people level. This is a moment when we must put aside our differences, and recognize that, at the end of the day, France really is our friend.
If I may take a leaf from Le Monde's book, I'd like to say "Nous sommes tous français."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Embedded image permalink
Cartoon by David Pope.

Earlier today three Islamic terrorists unleashed their fury at the personnel of Charlie Hebdo, an Onion-like French publication, gunning down 12 people, including two police officers. The main targets were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo who had drawn and published images of the so-called prophet Muhammad—a big no-no to radical Islamists, who have consistently over the last decade issued threats of violence, and on occasion committed violence against those who do so (including the 2011 firebombing of CH offices in 2011)—and have lampooned Islam more generally. After committing the heinous acts, the three assailants—eventually identified as Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, both French, from Paris, and in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, from Reims—escaped into a getaway car and were on the loose for hours. The latest report, according to Agence France-Presse, is that Mourad has surrendered to police; there are conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the other two terrorists.

Certainly, this was a sad day for the friends and families of the victims, for France, and for advocates of free speech and a liberal society worldwide. This attack was calculated and deliberate, not a haphazard or random act of violence. It was designed to assassinate people who freely wield the pen, who write or draw what they want—which is a hallmark of classical liberalism, as it is a key element of speaking truth to power structures, whether domestic or foreign. Of course, the killings weren’t only done to take out various Charlie Hebdo staff, but also to send a signal to other journalists—in France, in the West, around the globe—that they too are under threat if they don’t watch what they say about Islam. One of their goals is to place restraints on freedoms of speech by forcing journalists to self-censor their work, which shouldn’t be surprising.

After all, Islamic terrorists abhor freedom and democracy, believing they are human creations that place man, not God or Allah, at the center of politics and society. Since these terrorists don’t pose an existential threat to Western countries—yes, they can attack people and things, but can’t take over Western states and institutions—the next best thing is to hollow out Western institutions and ideals. Censorship—via foreign or domestic coercion—effectively enervates the foundations of liberal rights and freedoms, and by extension democracy itself as well.  

It is interesting that this incident comes so soon after the fiasco involving “The Interview.” Different actors, different methods, of course, but a similar goal by the perpetrators in both cases. The North Korean hackers sought revenge over the content of the movie, which was all about the assassination of Kim Jong Un, and tried to leverage influence over the public release of the movie. At first, Sony caved in, canceling the public release, then, in response to American outcry, placed the movie online and held a limited Christmas-day release. But Sony’s later moves weren’t enough to compensate for the millions of dollars likely lost as a result of its initial cancellation; moreover, they sent a chilling message to bad guys around the world that it’s indeed possible to leverage a veto, even if only temporary, over what the U.S. does. So In effect, then, the North Koreans were successful in effecting a form of censorship on the U.S.

Unfortunately, immediately after the attacks, reports surfaced that CNN and the Associated Press, taking their cues from Sony, were reluctant to show images of the cartoons that were deemed incendiary by Islamic radicals and terrorists. Sure, these media outlets need to exercise caution because the security of their employees could be in jeopardy, depending on the decisions they make. Yet, at the same time, they have a responsibility to tell the full story of the attacks, and a part of that story is the work of the cartoonists—not just a description of their work, but the images, pictures of the actual cartoons. In fact, by showing the the cartoonists’ work, media sources can actually celebrate their lives as well as their liberal ideals—the right to create, to stimulate discussion, to provoke, to critique. But by exercising a degree of self-censorship, CNN and the AP are caving into the terrorists’ interests and demands. Sounds trite, yes, but it’s also true. Why should we value the interests and values of terrorists over those who embrace and reflect the best of humanity?

On the positive side, many posters on Facebook and Twitter have showed images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. It’s this kind of resilience and spirit that keeps liberal values alive and well, and both will be needed to continue to fight the spread of the virulent strain of Islamic radicalism that exists today.