Last week, more than a hundred Nigerian students, girls between 15 and 18 years of age, were kidnapped by the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists of Boko Haram. Most of the girls are still being held. That should be a big story, don’t you think?
Few major-league journalists do. The United Nations has not been moved to rhetoric, much less action. American and European feminists haven’t mobilized. As I write this, the abductions are not featured on the websites of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. “In the News” on the Congressional Black Caucus’ website features instead: “Black lawmakers appeal to Pentagon over hairstyle ban.”
What’s the explanation for such widespread lack of interest? Is it because Africa — even Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country with what this year became its largest economy — seems remote? Is it because those who have declared the global “war on terrorism” over are loath to call attention to yet another active battlefield? Is it because acknowledging that self-declared Islamic jihadists are persecuting “infidels” in a growing list of countries would shatter the fashionable, multicultural Western worldview?
Some details of the attack: In the wee hours of April 14, a convoy of about 60 trucks and motorcycles arrived at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, in northeastern Nigeria.
Boko Haram has long been active in this area. Indeed, in early March, there had been a statewide school closure because of the threat posed by the Islamist terrorist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” In recent days, however, schools reopened to allow students to take examinations and earn certificates that would make it easier for them to find jobs.
According to some reports, the terrorists were disguised as soldiers, and told the students, mostly Christians, that they were in danger and must leave their dorms quickly and that the trucks would take them to safety. According to other reports, the students were forcibly herded into the vehicles after a gunbattle with school security guards, two of whom were killed.
The motorcyclists accompanying the trucks into the bush prevented the girls from jumping out. A few managed to escape anyway after the vehicles in which they were riding broke down.
As I write this, it appears that between 20 and 40 of the 107 kidnapped girls have managed to get away.
What are the terrorists doing with those still held captive? Enslaving them. They will make them cook and clean, and perhaps provide sexual services. A Nigerian Christian girl abducted by Boko Haram last November told Reuters that she had been forced to convert to Islam and been used “as bait to attract enemies,” who were then killed.
Also last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that slaughtered more than 70 people at a bus station in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. That act of terrorism received scant international attention as well.
Since its founding in 2002, Boko Haram has been responsible for thousands of killings. Schools have been preferred targets, along with churches. There also have been attacks against mosques whose clerics and worshippers were considered insufficiently sympathetic to the jihadist cause. In 2011, Boko Haram suicide-bombed a U.N. compound in Abuja as well.
Nevertheless, the prevailing narrative on the left is that the conflict stems from poverty and inequality rather than Islamist ideology and a lust for power. “The Nigerian state has, by and large, failed its population,” writes Simon Allison of Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “It may be awash in oil wealth, but none of that trickles down into the population, which has yet to see much in the way of material benefits from an independent Nigeria. Who wouldn’t be looking for an alternative?”
His perspective is ahistorical. As The New York Times’ West Africa bureau chief in the mid-1980s, I spent a fair amount of time in Nigeria. Despite poverty, Muslims and Christians generally got along, and what sectarian tensions arose rarely turned violent. If anything, the Muslim north of the country seemed safer than the chaotic Christian south. What changed? For one, a determined campaign of Islamic radicalization funded largely by Saudis and Iranians.
Mr. Allison laments that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has “abandoned any form of diplomacy.” Ah, yes. If only Nigerian diplomats would sit down with the slave drivers of teenage schoolgirls and discuss their grievances, all this unpleasantness could be amicably settled. Perhaps British and American diplomats should be inviting al Qaeda’s leaders to join them for talks in Vienna as well.
They could, for example, reach out to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, No. 2 in al Qaeda’s global operations. He has recently been seen in a video broadcast on jihadist websites of a high-level al Qaeda meeting in Yemen. Addressing his comrades, he makes clear that his organization’s goal is to strike the U.S. again. “We must eliminate the cross,” he says, referencing what he sees as Christian power. He adds: “The bearer of the cross is America!”
Boko Haram is proud to be one of al Qaeda’s African franchises, along with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab in Somalia. “We are together with al Qaeda,” Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa told reporters in Nigeria by phone last November. “They are promoting the cause of Islam, just as we are doing. Therefore, they help us in our struggle, and we help them, too.”
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has vowed that it won’t be long before his organization can “comfortably confront the United States of America.” Most analysts regard that as bluster. On the other hand, getting a few terrorists from Nigeria into the United States is not an extraordinarily complicated project. It’s made easier when the watchdogs aren’t watching.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.