As Global Terrorist Attacks Surge, Governments Struggle for Answers

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Pakistan and Nigeria have in the last seven weeks suffered from horrific terrorist attacks that some analysts say are unprecedented in these countries’ violent recent histories. The carnage was a reminder that the countries that most frequently suffer terrorist attacks are often those with long-running problems of poor governance and religious strife. Their aftermath was also a reminder of the challenges activists face in sustaining global attention on this devastating violence, given how relatively quickly these stories faded to the back pages of Western newspapers.

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Photo: Kashif Haque / Wikimedia Commons
A candlelight vigil is held in London for the victims of the Peshawar school siege in Pakistan last December that slaughtered nearly 150 people, most of them children. A new report showed a 61 percent spike in terrorist attacks in 2013 compared to the previous year, mostly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan.

Pakistan is still reeling from a school attack in Peshawar last December in which Taliban gunmen slaughtered nearly 150 people, the bulk of them children. Meanwhile, in raids that began Jan. 3, gunmen from the terrorist group Boko Haram swept through the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga and nearby villages, reportedly massacring as many as 2,000 people. Corpses littered the streets of Baga and, according to one witness, some residents were burned alive in their homes. Amnesty International said it was possibly the deadliest attack in Boko Haram’s short and brutal history (also see this month’s cover profile).

Elsewhere, hundreds have been killed in Yemen in recent months, as al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militants unleashed a wave of attacks in response to the power grab by Shiite Houthi rebels in the deeply fractured nation. Also teetering on the brink is Libya, where clashes between Islamist fighters and pro-government forces have torn the oil-rich country apart. And, of course, the January terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 17 people — and had links to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen — reinforced fears in the West about the reach of Islamic radicalization.

As horrible as these headlines are, scholars such as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker point out that the world on the whole is significantly less violent than it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But that is no comfort to the citizens of Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere who are bearing the brunt of a recent surge in terrorism.

Terrorist Spike

The year 2013 was a grim one for deaths caused by terrorism (data from 2013 is much more complete than that from 2014). According to the Global Terrorism Index published in November by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), 17,958 people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2013, a 61 percent increase from 2012. Over 80 percent of those deaths took place in five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, according to the report, which drew data from the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

The majority of the attacks were committed by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Taliban — all groups with “religious ideologies based on extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam,” it said. 

There were 2,345 deaths from terrorism in Pakistan in 2013, a 37 percent increase compared with 2012, the report found. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) was the deadliest of the many terror groups operating in Pakistan in 2013, responsible for nearly a quarter of all deaths and nearly half of all attacks in which a group claimed responsibility.

In Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden,” killed at least 1,587 people in 2013 and claimed responsibility for nearly 90 percent of terrorist acts in Nigeria that year, according to the report (a recent Council on Foreign Relations study put the Boko Haram death toll at more than 10,000 for 2014).

And while terrorist-related deaths have increased fivefold since 2000, the report aims to put the phenomenon into perspective, noting that 40 times more people are killed by homicides than by terrorist attacks. Of the over 100,000 people killed by terrorists since 2000, only 5 percent of those fatalities occurred in the developed countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the report.

This discrepancy bolsters complaints that mainstream media disproportionately focuses on isolated attacks against the West, while paying less attention to the bloodshed in places like Nigeria. The January massacre in and around Baga, for instance, overlapped with a Jan. 7 attack by gunmen on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that eventually left 17 dead. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy dominated coverage in American news outlets for several days, while Boko Haram’s onslaught received far less attention. One important news story overshadowed another in an age of thinly staffed foreign bureaus.

But there are other reasons for the discrepancies in coverage: Access to areas such as northeastern Nigeria — or Syria, Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq or the federal tribal areas of Pakistan, for that matter — is notoriously difficult and dangerous for reporters. Also, unlike French politicians who quickly spoke to the press after the attacks, the Nigerian government has often been silent or evasive about Boko Haram’s campaign of violence (Abuja publicly condemned the Paris attacks, but said nothing of the assault within their own borders).

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Photo: © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons
Protesters in Strasbourg, France, march in support of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper that was attacked in Paris last month by Islamic radicals.

The IEP report points out that countries suffering from terrorist activity tend to have gross human rights abuses by the state, high criminality and poor rule of law, in addition to hostility among different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. It does not attribute the growth of terrorism to poverty, school attendance or other socio-economic indicators.

The report underscores a clear need for governments to have patient, long-term strategies for counter-terrorism, said Aubrey Fox, executive director of IEP’s U.S. office. “You have to make long-term investments in building more peaceful and sustainable societies or else you will experience problems like terrorism that spiral out of control.”

The study also found a striking mismatch in the counter-terrorism strategies often employed by governments — i.e. military force — and those that have historically succeeded, like incorporating insurgent groups into the political process or improving policing, according to Fox.

Nigeria offers a case study in state struggles to effectively and consistently combat terrorism while addressing the grievances related to the violence. Though it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the implacably violent Boko Haram can be co-opted politically, the tactics employed by the Nigerian government against the group have left many Nigerians questioning its commitment to defeating the terrorist threat.

Boko Haram’s Beginnings 

The January massacre in and around Baga was the latest in a growing list of atrocities committed by Boko Haram over the last few years. The inflection point for that surge in violence was the 2009 police murder of Boko Haram’s founder, Islamist cleric Mohammed Yusuf. The cleric had formed the group in 2002 in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno. Its overriding goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria governed by Sharia law.

Following Yusuf’s murder in police custody in 2009, Boko Haram unleashed a torrent of violence. The group was “transformed into the current murderous organization essentially by police abuses in 2009, including the police murder of Mohammed Yusuf,” said John Campbell, who was U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

As ambassador, Campbell said his embassy was “aware of radical Islamic ideas in circulation in the north, but we were not focused on a specific group such as Yusuf’s followers.” The subsequent emergence of Boko Haram made clear that the group was a menacing threat to the Nigerian state.

Paradoxically, Boko Haram’s rise has been aided by the state’s harsh crackdown, which allegedly includes extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. The dodgy reputation of the country’s armed forces has prevented Washington from offering weapons to Nigeria, despite its pleas for international assistance to defeat the insurgency.

In part thanks to rampant corruption, Nigeria’s military lacks basic equipment for the battle against Boko Haram. There is a perception that “the troops are not being supported well by the politicians in terms of having the necessary arms and … that some of the politicians are too busy preparing for [February national elections] to give their focus to combating the insurgency, which leaves the troops very vulnerable,” said Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African and Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, speaking to The Diplomat from Nigeria.

Campbell, in a recent report for the Council on Foreign Relations, argues against treating Boko Haram as another opponent in the war against terrorism. Instead, he said the United States should help the Nigerian government tackle the root causes of a localized problem that “is a direct result of chronic poor governance by Nigeria’s federal and state governments, the political marginalization of northeastern Nigeria and the region’s accelerating impoverishment,” he writes. 

Sensitivity to Media Glare

Nigerian officials have lashed out at criticism from the international community, complaining of media bias and outside interference, although their response at least suggests they’re listening.

Successive administrations over the last several years have shown a pattern of “taking international attention very seriously and responding to it in some way, shape or form,” according to Darren Kew, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School.

The Nigerian government is generally “very sensitive to international shame or anything that it sees as an embarrassment to its international reputation,” said Kew, a conflict resolution specialist who has been studying Nigeria for over two decades. Local civil society groups are aware of this. Global media attention thus “creates a moment of possibility for local actors to really hold the Nigerian government accountable,” he added.

That sensitivity to international scrutiny is true of Goodluck Jonathan, president of Nigeria since 2010. His administration was uncomfortably thrust in the global spotlight last April when Boko Haram kidnapped as many as 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town in northeastern Nigeria. A subsequent global campaign, equipped with the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, was taken up by everyone from Michelle Obama to Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Yet in the 10 months since the girls’ abduction, Boko Haram has carried out many more kidnappings and critics have slammed Jonathan for dithering in taking on the group generally and prioritizing the rescue of the kidnapped girls specifically. More than 50 of the girls have managed to escape, but over 200 are still missing.

The world’s attention in the aftermath of the Chibok kidnapping pressured Jonathan’s administration to bring the girls back, but that spotlight inevitably faded as time passed.

The large-scale kidnapping of boys and girls “is now a fixture of the conflict in Nigeria,” said Campbell, who is a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And for that reason, the relative decline in Nigerian media attention to one particular group, the Chibok girls, becomes understandable. In the U.S., though, and in the West in general, the focus has always been only on the Chibok group and not the larger problem, which is ubiquitous kidnapping.”

The Chibok girls’ kidnapping is a tragic, relatable narrative that begs a resolution, which remains elusive. By contrast, Boko Haram’s early January violence in Baga was indiscriminate and therefore might feed a preconception in Western media minds of endless, intractable conflict.

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Photo: VOA / Wikimedia Commons
The parents of the Chibok kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria mourn the loss of their daughters.

Similarly, Western media outlets seem to have moved on from the horrific school massacre in Pakistan that killed 132 children, in part because a litany of tragedies have stretched the media’s bandwidth.

But like the Boko Haram carnage, Pakistan’s troubles with terrorism stem from a long, convoluted history whose intricacies are understandably lost on many outsiders. The United States and other governments have warned against the Pakistani government’s selective stance toward fighting terrorism, in which it targets groups that launch attacks on home soil while coddling those that serve its foreign policy interests in Afghanistan and India. Islamabad — perhaps in a sign that it, too, is not immune from bad press — has pledged to go after terrorists of all stripes, although such promises have been made before.

The country’s incessant political turmoil and at-times antagonistic relationship with the U.S. further muddy the picture for many Americans. And like Boko Haram’s rampage in the remote northeastern parts of Nigeria, the Pakistani military’s offensive in the restive North Waziristan tribal area is largely inaccessible to journalists, making on-the-ground reporting impossible; militants have said the school attack was in retaliation for the Waziristan offensive.

Some observers say the unprecedented wickedness of the violence has created an opportunity for political unity.

“In the past, there’s been ambivalence toward the Taliban in the sense that political parties have said, ‘Well, perhaps it’s better to negotiate rather than fight, [that] ultimately there needs to be a political solution,’” said Omar Waraich, a journalist covering Pakistan for Time magazine and the Independent. “But I think the point that’s been driven home this time is that you cannot reconcile with the murderers of children.”

While the Peshawar bloodbath prompted widespread revulsion in Pakistan, it remains to be seen if it will trigger a nationwide reckoning, given that significant segments of the population support the conservative religious agenda of Islamist extremists over the corruption-addled, coup-prone central government.

Likewise in Nigeria, there is some support for Boko Haram’s mission, if not its brutal tactics (there’s even speculation that the group has sympathizers among members of the military who would like to see the Jonathan government flounder). The largely Muslim north has long complained of alienation from the wealthier, Christian-dominated south. Now, fears have surfaced that due to the deteriorating security situation, northerners won’t be able to make it to the polls for the country’s upcoming election, exacerbating the north-south split.

All-Important Election 

Analysts say it is hard to exaggerate the importance of Nigeria’s national elections in February. Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian and member of the People’s Democratic Party, will face off against Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim and member of the All Progressives Congress.

Jonathan has been dogged by the perception among some Nigerians that he has not done enough to tackle corruption or fight Boko Haram, yet he still stands a good chance against Buhari, a former military leader who has run unsuccessfully in previous elections.

Kew of the University of Massachusetts Boston sees the election as a crucial exercise in the development of Nigerian democracy. “Nigeria has not had a viable [political] opposition during the Fourth Republic [which began in 1999] until now,” he said.

At the same time, the election, which some doubt will be free and fair, could deepen the fault lines of Nigeria’s fragile political system.

“The very thing democracy and political development need in terms of the rise of a viable political opposition is the exact thing that could also burn the house down because ruling parties don’t give up easily,” said Kew, who recently returned from a research trip to Nigeria.

Despite pledges from Attahiru Jega, head of the Independent National Electoral Commission, that the elections will be better run than in 2011, some fear that the INEC may be unable to “produce an updated and credible voter register” before the polls open, according to the International Crisis Group.

Many in Nigeria’s north feel the 2011 election, in which Jonathan defeated Buhari, was tainted, Kew said. For the polls to be skewed in 2015 in favor of Jonathan would be “far less acceptable to people on the ground,” he said.

If Nigeria’s political system can get through the upcoming election, it would offer the next government an opportunity to recommit itself to fighting Boko Haram, according to the Jamestown Foundation’s Zenn. “I do think after the dust settles from the election, no matter who wins — assuming that the dust does settle — then yes, they will be able to refocus on the insurgency,” he said.


About the Author

Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on February 4, 2015