Until the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014 leading to a global outcry and large-scale media coverage of Boko Haram, Western coverage of the group has been limited and restricted to sporadic attention following the violent attacks of the group in recent years. While its aspiration as an Al Qaeda-like organization and its links to transnational terrorist organizations have been noted in the media, the group has been mainly viewed as a domestic terrorist organization fueled by local grievances and sectarian tension, which reflects the assessment of most Western governments of the group.
Boko Haram first rose to international attention following violent clashes with Nigerian police forces in July 2009. While one of the nicknames of the group, “Nigerian Taliban,” was picked up by the Western press, The Guardian’s David Smith emphasized the domestic focus of the group around local grievances and sectarian tensions, arguing that Boko Haram “models itself on the Taliban but has no known link.” David Smith, “Nigerian 'Taliban' offensive leaves 150 dead,” Guardian, July 27, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/08/nigerian-taliban-us-boko-haram.
With the frequency, scale, and violence of attacks by Boko Haram increasing since 2010, media coverage of the group became more frequent. Yet the exact nature of the group remained elusive to many commentators. In The New York Times, Jean Herskovits argued “[T]here is no proof that a well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even exists today. Evidence suggests instead that, while the original core of the group remains active, criminal gangs have adopted the name Boko Haram to claim responsibility for attacks when it suits them.” Jean Herskovits “In Nigeria, Boko Haram Is Not the Problem,” New York Times, January 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/opinion/in-nigeria-boko-haram-is-not-the-problem.html?pagewanted=all. Similarly Reuters’ Joe Brook asked, “Is Boko Haram just the latest in a long list of violent spasms in Nigeria, or is it the next battalion of global jihadists, capable of thrusting Africa's most populous nation into civil war?” He went on to argue that “Boko Haram remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian issues.” However a “small, increasingly ambitious and sophisticated group of extremists controls the very top of the group. A handful of those members have received training outside Nigeria, including from AQIM.” Joe Brook, “Special Report: Boko Haram - between rebellion and jihad,” Reuters,January 31, 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/01/31/us-nigeria-bokoharam-idUSTRE80U0LR20120131.
When Boko Haram bombed a UN building in Nigeria’s capital Abuja in August 2011, links of the group to international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda were widely mentioned in the press based on both the type of target and sophistication of the attack. Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs was cited by the BBC saying “This is not an attack on Nigeria but on the global community,” she said. “An attack on the world.” “Abuja attack: Car bomb hits Nigeria UN building,” BBC News, August 27, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14677957. Following a proliferation of further attacks, the U.S. army starts to provide counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops to combat what was described in the Guardian as an “armed Islamic insurgency.”
Following a statement by Abubakar Shekau posted on YouTube in January 2012, stating that Boko Haram was “at war with Christians,” media reports begin to highlight Boko Haram’s global ambition, arguing that “the group's leadership would like to be seen as part of a global jihad.” Joe Brook, “Special Report: Boko Haram - between rebellion and jihad,” Reuters,January 31, 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/01/31/us-nigeria-bokoharam-idUSTRE80U0LR20120131.
As Boko Haram began to professionalize its attacks, the group also began to manage its relationship with Western media outlets in a different way. Rather than allowing individual members of the group to talk to a range of journalists, a spokesperson with the name of “Abu Qaqa” begins to appear and contact journalists to link attacks to Boko Haram. At the same time, the leader of the Abubakar Shekau begins to frequently post videos of the group on YouTube.
In January 2012, Abu Qaqa agreed to an exclusive interview with the Guardian attempting to justify the group’s violent attacks with the failure of the Nigerian government and portraying Boko Haram as a popular movement. “It's the secular state that is responsible for the woes we are seeing today. People should understand that we are not saying we have to rule Nigeria, but we have been motivated by the stark injustice in the land. People underrate us but we have our sights set on [bringing sharia to] the whole world, not just Nigeria… People were singing songs in [northern cities] Kano and Kaduna saying: ‘We want Boko Haram.’” Monica Mark, “Boko Haram vows to fight until Nigeria establishes sharia law,” Guardian, January 27, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/27/boko-haram-nigeria-sharia-law.
As Boko Haram’s attacks particularly against Christians continued and escalated, the U.S. Department of State came under increasing pressure by Congress and the Justice Department to designate the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). With a group of prominent academics urging then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to refrain from a designation, a public debate ensues in the U.S. over the question. Picking up on this point, the International Business Times emphasizes the limited usefulness of a designation concluding that “the U.S. needs to stop treating this as a security issue and start treating it for what it is—a political issue.” Ryan Villarreal, U.S., “Nigeria at odds over designation of Boko Haram as Terrorist Organisation,” International Business Times, May 29, 2012, http://www.ibtimes.com/us-nigeria-odds-over-designation-boko-haram-terrorist-organization-700515.
It was the kidnapping of 200 girls in April 2014 in the state of Chibok that led to large-scale Western media coverage of Boko Haram, prompting a global social media campaign in response. But despite global attention, the response of Western governments remained limited. Commenting in the Washington Post, Sarah Chayes argued that “amid the pressure to respond to the anguish, the United States is right not to overdo its counterterrorism assistance to Abuja,” stating that “much of the responsibility for the rise of the Boko Haram extremist group may lie with the Nigerian government itself.” Sarah Chayes “Nigeria’s Boko Haram isn’t just about Western education,” Washington Post, Max 16, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/nigerias-boko-haram-isnt-just-about-western-education/2014/05/16/d9bb5824-d9de-11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html. In the midst of the widespread public outrage over the kidnapping of the girls, media attention returns to the question of why Boko Haram had not been targeted by the U.S. administration earlier and designated as an FTO. Colin Freeman, “Missing Nigerian girls: whatever happened to #Bringbackourgirls?” Telegraph, July 14, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria/10947211/Missing-Nigerian-girls-whatever-happened-to-Bringbackourgirls.html.
While Western media interest in Boko Haram has increased over the last years, most commentators continue to view the activities of the group predominately through a prism of domestic grievances rather than a regional or global jihadist agenda. However, commentators increasingly compare Boko Haram to other regional terrorist groups and point to an agenda that is more regionally rather domestically focused. Thus, Colin Freeman argued in The Telegraph that “like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Isis in Syria and Iraq, a group that was unheard just a few years ago is now a major threat to the stability of the region.” Colin Freeman, “Missing Nigerian girls: whatever happened to #Bringbackourgirls?” Telegraph, July 14, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria/10947211/Missing-Nigerian-girls-whatever-happened-to-Bringbackourgirls.html. Similarly Robin Simcox stated on Al Jazeera English that “ignoring the long-standing connections Boko Haram has to al-Qaeda, or betting that Boko Haram's focus will remain local is not a policy. It is willful blindness.” Robin Simcox, “Boko Haram and defining the ‘al Qaeda network,’” Al Jazeera, June 6, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/06/boko-haram-al-qaeda-201463115816142554.html.