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Defeating Boko Haram

The U.S. strategy to contain and defeat Boko Haram isn't working.

The bloody attacks in Paris this month that left 20 people dead, including the three attackers, riveted the world's attention on the growing threat Islamist extremist groups pose to the democracies of Western Europe. Yet even as the French people were mourning their loss, an even more horrific terrorist outrage was unfolding thousands of miles away in Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants linked to al-Qaida attacked towns and villages in the country's impoverished northeast. Human rights groups say the rampage leveled every building in the area and left as many as 2,000 people lying dead in the streets. Authorities there say the violence has not stopped.

Last April, when Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in Borno, most Americans had never heard of the group. Today it controls dozens of towns and villages across a wide swath of northern Nigeria as it seeks to set up a cross-border Islamic "caliphate" in parts of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon similar to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is adopting an increasingly sophisticated media strategy, a la ISIS, and some reports suggests it is employing child soldiers. The U.S. cannot afford to see it succeed.

After the April kidnappings, the Obama administration promised to lend Nigeria any assistance necessary to locate the abducted students and return them safely to their families. But it has, at best, a shaky partner in Nigeria's notoriously corrupt government, whose top officials seem intent only on maintaining their grip on power and lining their pockets at the public's expense. Graft is endemic among civil service employees, and the country's top military officers routinely enrich themselves by skimming the wages sent from the capital to their troops. Not surprisingly the army itself is woefully undisciplined, and ordinary citizens fear it nearly as much as the rebels because of its disgraceful record of human rights abuses.

Given Nigeria's dysfunctional kleptocracy and a political culture that serves only its wealthy elite, it's no wonder the government and the military have gone out of their way to downplay the disaster engulfing their country ahead of elections scheduled for next month. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was among the first to offer condolences to the victims of the Paris attack, but he allowed nearly two weeks to pass before even mentioning the massacre of his own countrymen in public. Meanwhile his defense minister dismissed questions about the army's low morale and the shortage of weapons and equipment with which to confront the insurgents, instead blaming Boko Haram's recent gains on the incompetence of government soldiers, whom he derided as "lazy cowards" who had joined the military only in order to collect a paycheck.

It could be only a matter of time before Boko Haram joins al-Qaida offshoots in Yemen, Syria and Iraq in planning and launching its own attacks in the West. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaida, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, has already claimed responsibility for the attack by two brothers on a satirical newspaper in Paris that killed 12 journalists and a police officer. AQAP is the same group that organized the attempted bombing of a commercial airliner en route to Detroit in 2009 by a militant who tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. The third Paris attacker, who killed four hostages at a kosher grocery store before being killed by police, claimed to be acting in the name of the Islamic State.

President Barack Obama's strategy of enlisting regional partners in the war on terror to contribute ground troops supported by U.S. drones (or in some cases, manned airstrikes) and logistical and intelligence aid is sound in theory, but it can't work when the partner governments are either unwilling or unable to organize their own defense, as is the case in Nigeria. The U.S. has been trying to work with the African Union and with Nigeria's neighbors to bring a semblance of coherence to the fight against Boko Haram, but it's been an uphill battle given the head-in-the-sand attitude of the government in Lagos. The same kinds of problems have dogged U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, and just last week it lost another critical partner when Shiite rebels in Yemen occupied the capital and forced a president and his government who had been cooperating with the U.S. to resign.

Like the Islamic State and AQAP, Boko Haram promotes an extreme version of Islam that forbids any accommodation with the West in its drive to overthrow governments and establish an Islamic caliphate. The havoc Boko Haram is creating in Africa's most populous country through bombings, assassinations, abductions and the wholesale murder of entire villages and towns represents the gravest threat to security to the region and one that, eventually, will threaten Europe and the U.S. as well. Regardless of how reasonable Mr. Obama's partnership strategy sounds in theory, the reality on the ground shows it's clearly not working. If Boko Haram is not to become permanently entrenched in the lawless regions where it now operates, the administration is going to have to come up with a much more robust and practical plan for defeating it.

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