Boko Haram, the north Nigerian extremist group, has recently escalated its terror campaign with a string of deadly strikes against government and civilian targets. To combat the rising threat, the West must embrace conservative Muslims in the region as potential allies.
Over the past few months, Boko Haram, the north Nigerian extremist organization whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” has escalated its three-year terror campaign with a string of audacious, deadly strikes against both government affiliates and civilians. Most dramatic were late January’s bombings in the north Nigerian city of Kano, which killed nearly 200 people. As Boko Haram promises further attacks, the violence shows no sign of abating.
The group has drawn international concern – including American military, diplomatic, and development attention under the multi-agency Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative – focused on a remote and little-known region in western Africa, where not only Boko Haram but also Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) prey on some of the world’s poorest peoples.
To combat the rising threat, the West must embrace as potential allies the conservative Muslims who dominate this turbulent region. But there is a real danger that Western analysts will mistakenly identify north Nigeria’s conservative Islam with Boko Haram’s violent ideology, instead of seeing the extremists for who they are: violent groups espousing fringe views that most Nigerian Muslims reject.
Islam is the social and cultural glue of north Nigeria. In an impoverished and politically corrupt society with intense grievances against the southern-dominated government, conservative Islam provides essential moral and social bearing for people in the north of the country. At the start of the millennium, popular declarations of sharia law in all northern states underscored the religion’s importance to regional identity.
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