Max Abrahms is a terrorism theorist and political science professor at Northeastern University. He delivered the TED Talk “How Governments Respond to Terrorism” in 2014 and has appeared on CNBC, HuffPost Live, CrossTalk, and Al Jazeera discussing terrorism. This week, he spoke with TWiB News about the recent massacre in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram.
TWiB: What should people know about the massacre in Nigeria and the country’s response to terrorism?
Max Abrahms: I would say that Goodluck Jonathan is a terrible national leader. He doesn’t seem to care about the people in the north. Throughout the conflict with Boko Haram ,which really escalated in 2010, his government has been extraordinarily feckless. I met with some high level members of his cabinet a few months ago, and they denied that Boko Haram even poses a substantial problem to the country.
TWiB: They outright denied it?
MA: They said, “We have everything under control; you can’t believe the reporting in the West; they’re lying; they’re trying to undermine me; the military is fully capable, committed and motivated.” So, they didn’t deny that there was any problem at all, but they dramatically downplayed it. So, I think your question is a smart one, because typically in the face of terrorism, leaders of countries are much more likely to overreact than to underreact. And yet, Goodluck Jonathan has done even worse than underreacting–there was hardly a response at all. And [in] some of these massacres, Boko Haram goes into villages and completely ravages them, and there is no sight of the military or perhaps there’s some small military presence that runs away. So I think Goodluck Jonathan has failed his people.”
Ironically, however, the Boko Haram attacks may actually help the incumbent win, and that’s because, as you know, his constituency is not based in the north. If there’s a huge amount of violence, the northerners might not turn out to vote. So consequently, those suppressed politically could work to his benefit.
TWiB: This violence can actually help Goodluck Jonathan?
MA: Yes,because the northerners are not going to vote for him, because he’s done a terrible job protecting them…. If there’s a lot of violence there, voters might think twice about going out to vote. If they’re less inclined to go, and they were the ones that were going to support alternative candidates, then violence could indirectly increase his chances of winning.
TWiB: Have there been historical examples of other leaders who have taken the same approach to terrorism? If so, what has been the result?
MA: Yes, although it’s true that generally countries are more inclined to overreact than to underreact, the threat of terrorist group Islamic State went largely unopposed throughout the summer [of 2014]. People expected terrorism analysts, expected local forces from the local population to the the Iraqi government to stand up, oppose, and ultimately defeat Islamic State, and yet that did not happen. I think the world underreacted, at least initially underreacted, to Islamic State.
TWiB: Do you think Boko Haram may have been encouraged by that initial inaction?
MA: Terrorist groups are rational actors, and they do try to mimic the actions of other terrorist groups they deem successful. So it’s always a good idea to look at how terrorists learn from each other. I actually think that Islamic State and Boko Haram have indeed learned from each other. I think that Boko Haram pioneered the seizure of large numbers of young women for their own use as well as to sell off into slavery for money, and Islamic State shortly after did something similar with the Yazidi women. The sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, I do believe, was replicated by Islamic State. However Boko Haram has also implemented practices they deemed successful from watching Islamic State. For instance, Boko Haram escalated its beheadings as a tool of intimidation. Furthermore, [in] Boko Haram, the leader, the crazy leader [Abubakar Shekau] said he wanted to establish a caliphate, and there’s no chance he would have made that statement without watching [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] make that declaration about Islamic State. So I think although [they are not in] operational coordination with each other in terms of planning attacks, they do learn from each other. Frankly making both groups more brutal.
There are no joint attacks, they don’t have a shared membership, and there’s no operational coordination, but they share some of the same ideas.
TWiB: Why do you feel it took so long for these incidents to be reported?
MA: Since January 9, I’ve been hammering Twitter–long before the mainstream media–that this area is being neglected. I’ve had numerous tweets along those lines about a week ago. It’s interesting to theorize why this massacre has gotten so little attention. Why is there a “Je sui Charlie,” but no “Je Sui Nigeria”?
I have a number of theories for why this is the case in terms to the neglect. At the top of the list I would put racism. In the case of Nigeria, the perpetrators and victims are black, of course. I think if the victims were white there might be more attention from the West.
It’s shameful how the 2K people killed in Boko Haram’s biggest massacre gets almost no media coverage: http://t.co/tYSnnfGpDb.
— Max Abrahms (@MaxAbrahms) January 10, 2015
Another explanation, and these are in no way mutually exclusive, in Nigeria the violence is protracted. There’s violence, if not on a daily basis, it’s on a weekly basis. When people think of terrorism, they think of an attack out of the blue, like 9/11 for instance. When the violence is protracted in the way it is in Nigeria, people stop thinking of it as terrorism, and they start thinking of it as a civil war or an insurgency, and when that’s the case, people write off the conflict as intractable beyond repair.
Another reason I think the Nigerian massacre got so little attention is there are very few genuine experts on Boko Haram because Boko Haram is not a formal Al Qaeda affiliate. When people want to become a terrorism scholar or expert, they often begin with Al Qaeda, their affiliates, or Islamic State. Boko Haram is neither. There are very few people who can speak about the details of Boko Haram. I honestly learned this by seeing the near absence of experts of Boko Haram. That was my impetus on learning. There’s a shortage of information. That compares to, say, Al Shabab, which is an Al Qaeda affiliate, and consequently there are more terrorism pundits available to speak about that group.
I also think the Nigerian massacre was neglected because there were no graphic images that were broadly disseminated internationally. There was not a photograph documenting two thousand bodies, for example. If it was caught on camera, more people would be more likely to be moved.
Also, and this brings us back to our previous discussion, Goodluck Jonathan has been downplaying the Boko Haram threat. He has a real interest in doing so–both insurgents and counterinsurgents are trying to do the same thing to win. Both are trying to win over the population because there is power in numbers. So Goodluck Jonathan is going around telling people he has everything under control in order to try to reassure the population that he’s a competent leader, and the consequences of that is the world is more ignorant [to] the conflict than it should be.