3-29-2012By Winny Chen
Crimes Against Humanity Program
Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group seeking to overthrow Nigeria’s secular government in favor of Sharia law, has made a disturbing new addition to its official list of targets: schools. The group recently carried out a series of arson attacks against public and private schools in the city of Maiduguri, punctuating months of increased violence against civilians in northeast Nigeria. Though Boko Haram has received attention for its ties to terrorist networks, the group’s increasing perpetration of atrocities demands greater U.S. focus.
Boko Haram, Arabic for “Western education is a sin,” has targeted civilians since 2009, when the group turned violent. Its attacks have claimed over 1,000 lives in the last two years; victims include elected officials, high-ranking civil servants, U.N. workers, and other perceived supporters of the Nigerian government. Boko Haram has mostly targeted Christian churches and government buildings; its torching of over ten schools represents a new development. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that over 2,000 people have fled from Maiduguri to escape the violence.
Despite these gruesome facts, it’s only recently that Boko Haram’s human rights abuses have begun garnering American interest. U.S. attention in has primarily – and perhaps myopically – focused on the group’s stated intent to connect with senior Al Qaeda leaders (some senior U.S. intelligence officials believe the connection has already been made) and other terrorist groups, like al-Shabab.
However, the Obama Administration’s elevation of mass atrocities response to a national interest last year has led the U.S. government to pay greater attention to the devastating human costs of groups like Boko Haram. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper included Boko Haram’s attacks on churches in his Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony to Congress, and more recently, the U.S. government stepped up security efforts to help the Nigerian government battle the insurgency raging in the north.
The Administration’s redoubled efforts to end atrocities in places like Nigeria need not conflict with its counterterrorism objectives. Indeed, counterterrorism and atrocities prevention go hand-in-hand. For example, the Obama Administration and senior U.S. military officials in the region recognize that any effective U.S. response to both the terrorism and atrocities in Nigeria must employ a full range of tools – human intelligence to target perpetrators, financial intelligence to identify enablers and points of leverage, and law enforcement, to name but a few.
What’s needed is a mechanism to ensure that different parts of the U.S. government work together to combat atrocities. Here’s hoping that the forthcoming Atrocities Prevention Board will serve that purpose.