The kidnapping of 276 Nigerian school girls by the Boko Haram insurgency has finally drawn attention to the group's murderous, five-year-long crusade, which, unlike attacks by Islamist militants elsewhere, has largely focused on school children.
In September of last year, Boko Haram raiders attacked a college dormitory at 1 a.m., killing 44 students and teachers. Last July they killed 42 people, mainly students, in a pre-dawn raid on a school. In February, they attacked a boarding school in northern Nigeria in the middle of the night, killing 59 boys. And last month, Boko Haram militants entered another boarding school — the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok — in the middle of the night and kidnapped nearly 300 girls, an act that at last drew the world's notice, which appeared to surprise even the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau.
"Just because we kidnapped these young girls, you are making noise?" Mr. Shekau said on a video released Monday, suggesting the girls could be traded for the release of Boko Haram prisoners, according to a New York Times report. "You are making so much noise about Chibok, Chibok, Chibok."
The schools were all government run. All the attacks took place while the students were sleeping. And in each case, the school was torched.
Boko Haram is a terrorist organization based in Nigeria which has as its primary goal the creation of an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. While Boko Haram has attacked villages, police stations, prisons, churches and even mosques, it is the attacks on the schools that have drawn the most attention. These attacks also best embody what Boko Haram stands for.
As a society, we see violence perpetrated on defenseless children as worse than attacks on even innocent, civilian adults. But for Boko Haram, the important thing is the institution it has attacked, not the human beings killed. Its assault is on the institution of secular education.
Mr. Shekau stated in an August video: "We did say we were going to burn down schools offering Western education because they are not Islamic schools. They are schools primarily established to wage war on Islam. We fight teachers who teach Western education. We will kill them before their students, and we will tell the students to henceforth go and study the Qur'an. … We will continue carrying out such school attacks until we breathe or last breath."
Schools present soft targets where small groups of people can inflict massive amounts of damage. Attacking the schools while everyone is sleeping allows the attackers to create maximum devastation and then slip into the night.
More than students, Boko Haram seeks to terrorize parents.
What will it take now for parents to choose to send their children to boarding school? How much will parents blame the government for its inability to protect the children? What parent will risk having a daughter sold into slavery or forced to marry Boko Haram members for a $12 dowry — a fate Mr. Shekau has threatened for the Chibok girls?
Along with its philosophical opposition to government-sponsored education, Boko Haram uses the attacks on schools tactically to mask its lack of popular support. The group achieved some popularity when it began as an opponent of the government in 2002, but lost it when it turned violent in 2009. Those who live in the northern Nigeria area where Boko Haram operates are now confused about its motives and live in fear.
The Chibok attack appears to have united the country against Boko Haram and drawn international attention to its rampages. The kidnappings sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter, embraced by First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as international publicity from celebrities like Angelina Jolie.
Muslims and Christians alike have condemned the kidnappings. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has come under pressure from within the country and from the outside to finally wage serious war to stamp out the insurgency, though he took three weeks to publicly address the kidnappings. The U.S. and the U.K. have sent help.
Mr. Jonathan told the World Economic Forum, which coincidentally was meeting last week in the Nigerian capital Abuja, that the kidnappings "will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria." One can only hope that the international community continues to apply both political pressure and support on the ground and that the president backs up his words with deeds.
R. Bennett Furlow is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Communications at Arizona State University. His email is Bennett.Furlow@asu.edu.
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