Boko Haram first rocketed to international notoriety last spring after they kidnapped nearly 300 female students from their traditional area of operations in northeast Nigeria. This led to widespread global backlash and the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. In the meantime, internet activism has obviously proven to be no replacement for on-the-ground operations, and the Nigerian military has had severe difficulty in battling the terrorists. The expanding chaos has finally become transnational, with militants spilling over into Cameroon and refugees fleeing by the thousands into Chad. As Boko Haram begins to look more and more like the West African version of ISIL, the international community’s reaction to the two couldn’t be more different.
Different Continents, Same Terror
ISIL and Boko Haram are located relatively far away from one another, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t anything alike. Both groups are fundamentalist Islamic organizations that want to violently impose their views on others, and they’ve been fighting tooth and nail over the past few years to do so. No means are off limits in achieving their ends, be it suicide bombings or the mass killing of civilians, and their tactics are almost identical. They appear to blend in almost seamlessly with the local population before launching surprise guerrilla-like attacks on soft and hard targets. Their fighting style is a blend of the conventional and asymmetrical, and they resort to the seizure of military bases to procure valuable assets such as arms and vehicles.
Probably the most important similarity, however, is that both terrorist groups are the direct result of Western destabilization in their respective regions. NATO and its allied partners in the Gulf have been feverishly trying to overthrow the democratically elected government in Syria for the past four years, and they assisted ISIL while it was still in its infancy in order to empower one of the many proxy groups they were using to achieve this goal. As pertains to Boko Haram, the group’s capabilities were drastically improved after the 2011 War on Libya and the subsequently related intervention in Mali led to an influx of weapons and fighters to Nigeria. In both cases, neither ISIL nor Boko Haram would have become as troublesome terrorists as they are today had it not been for fertile conditions that the West created for them.
Not All Terrorist Victims Are Equal
Seeing as how they’re both so inherently alike, one might think that the West would respond to each terrorist group in almost the same way, which is actually not the case at all. While they’re bombing ISIL positions in Iraq and Syria, they’re doing nothing of the kind (or even publicly contemplating it) in Nigeria, and despite rendering assistance to the Iraqi government, they’re treating the Nigerians in a similar pariah fashion as they are the Syrians by withholding their support. The US unsuccessfully attempted to use its special forces to rescue kidnapped American journalist James Foley over the summer, but no such operation ever occurred to free the nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as sex slaves.
After the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 17 people, world leaders marched in opposition to terrorism and more than three million people across France took to the streets to join them. Likewise, when Boko Haram slaughtered more than 2,000 people over the weekend (a number comparable in scope to the nearly 3,000 people who died during 9/11), no such global condemnation or solidarity marches occurred. American activists have lately become fond of saying that #BlackLivesMatter, but apparently not those in Africa that perish due to black-on-black violence. So what is the explanation for the obvious double standards being applied to Boko Haram?
Energy Trumps Ethics
The US has a long habit of engaging in dangerous geopolitical games (e.g. the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamists in Libya, ISIL in the Mideast, etc.), and the case of Boko Haram is no different. Although not supported to the same degree as the previously mentioned examples are (if directly at all), the US does stand to make relative strategic gains as a result of Boko Haram’s successes, however unethical this may sound, provided that the group’s destabilization can be ‘controlled’. One may understandably doubt whether the US can in fact control or indirectly corral Boko Haram’s actions, seeing as how they ultimately failed to do so with the Taliban, Libyan Islamists, and ISIL, but what is undeniable is that Nigeria is a valuable piece of geostrategic real estate whose importance has lately been rising with both the EU and China.
Nigeria is in the top ten for global gas reserves, while its production and export remain minimal. This shows that it has enormous potential to become a major gas player in the future, especially since it is already the fourth-largest LNG exporter according to the US’ Energy Information Agency. At a time when the EU is looking to diversify away from Russian sources, the prospects of a Trans-Saharan Pipeline to the Mediterranean appear more attractive than ever. If Nigeria can remain in a state of semi-controlled chaos due to Boko Haram, then whoever can influence the group can indirectly affect the security of the EU’s probable Trans-Saharan pipeline, thereby leveraging influence over Brussels.
Nigeria is also a major oil exporter and member of OPEC, being the largest producer in Africa (and number ten or eleven in the world) and containing the second-largest reserves. It used to be one of the top five suppliers to the US in 2012, but since then, fracking has led to the country being the first to no longer sell any oil at all to America, according to an October 2014 article from the Financial Times. Filling the void has been China, which is also engaged in a continental competition for influence with the US over African resources and markets. It provided a $1.1 billion loan in 2013 to what some have described as Africa’s largest economy (it’s long been the most populous one) and announced an investment in early 2014 of over $10 billion for hydrocarbon prospecting in the north-central part of the country very close to Boko Haram’s traditional attack zone.
What Nigeria’s geostrategic importance to the EU and China amounts to is that the US may be engaged in a delicate balancing act of trying to contain (but not eliminate) Boko Haram in order to gain indirect influence over Brussels and Beijing’s interests. This would explain why it is reluctant to fight against the group and enacts double standards in addressing its violence. The thing is, this dangerous policy is fraught with the risk of blowback, and it could be that the next major terrorist attack against the West is cooked up not in the Mideast, but in West Africa.