How The West Underestimated Boko Haram
This analysis first appeared in Die Welt
It's the look on the faces of mothers that Sarah Lawan finds so painful. And when the 19-year-old walks by them in the Nigerian village of Chibok, the mothers frequently break into tears.
Lawan, who spoke with the Associated Press, is one of the 53 girls who got away from the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram on April 14. The girls chose to ignore the threats of shooting and jumped, sometimes while the vehicle was still in motion, from the loading platform of the all-terrain truck they were being kidnapped in.
More than 200 other girls are still being held captive. On Monday, a video emerged on YouTube of some 100 girls in veils, praying in an undisclosed location. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is seen speaking, and offering to release the Nigerian schoolgirls in exchange for prisoners.
Reports by a local paper that American experts, using satellite technology, had located the possible whereabouts of the girls has yet to be confirmed. No one can even begin to fathom the helplesness of their families, who have been left in the lurch by the Nigerian government.
Other Islamist terror organizations appear to be caught off guard by the high-profile hostage-taking, with one Islamist saying the episode was only being spread "to sully the image of the Mujahideen."
Estimates about the number of deaths Boko Haram has been responsible for this year alone run between 1,000 and 2,000 people, with many of those killed being Muslims. In the northern part of Nigeria, whoever disagrees with Boko Haram's virulent ideology risks being targeted.
In his fight to create an Islamic state, Boko Haram leader Shekau subordinates pretty much everything else to the goal of proving that the government cannot keep people safe. In the current standoff, Muslim girls are among those taken hostage.
The representation of the terrorists as some kind of bizarre cult has deflected attention from their outright savagery. And it seemed to require an act as cruel and brazen as the hostage-taking of schoolgirls to finally spark the attention in the West that Boko Haram merits, by comparison with other Islamists.
This was especially true during the years of radicalization of the group under Mohammed Yusuf - considered an "intellectual" - before the psychopathic Shekau took over in 2010, a few months after Yusuf's death. Shekau claims to be in direct communication with Allah and says he's acting on the Prophet's orders.
For a long time there appeared to be no international threat: Boko Haram attacks, in which hundreds of people often died, were concentrated in Nigeria, and mainly in the infrastructurally weak northeastern part of the country - a remote region that has been in a state of emergency for more than a year. The terror sect calls the shots in many places there,and information about the area is rare.
In the wake of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter, people worldwide are starting to realize how powerful the organization is. First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama even took over her husband's weekly video slot to alert people to the fate of the girls.
A few days ago, a general in the Nigerian army said that there were indications that Boko Haram had set up a large camp in northern Cameroon. In February, a Boko Haram officer announced that the group would intervene in the conflict in the Central African Republic, where thousands of Muslims have been killed by Christians. And Boko Haram is threatening to further destabilize the entire region.
What remains unclear is whether the organization really cooperates with other terrorists in Africa or if they're only saying they do for propaganda purposes. Boko Haram published video material allegedly shows joint training exercises with members of al-Shabab in Somalia. The group's weapons are often unquestionably better than those of the miserably paid Nigerian army, and experts suspect that Boko Haram gets financial support from outside the country.
Because influential local politicians and traditional leaders in northeastern Nigeria refused international aid for a long time, Shekau has been able to build up a real power base. But two stronger army units - better-armed than forces up to now have been - have now been stationed along the borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
The air force has flown over 250 reconnaissance flights, and police and other security forces are cooperating with an international task force. A few days ago, American and British abduction specialists flew into the region, so far to no avail. At least, however, it appears the world has woken up to the threat that Boko Haram poses, not just to the girls abducted, but to the entire region.