Boko Haram is Winning, and You are Helping

Boko Haram (BH) has had a banner couple of weeks, and the western press and social media participants have played an integral role.  This type of thing exorcises me.  I don’t like when people free ride (do not contribute to outcomes they value because they know their contribution to the outcome won’t make a difference), but I understand why, and accept it.[1]  And I also understand why people unwittingly play into the hands of dissident groups who use terror tactics, rewarding the truly spectacular missions, but I have a harder time accepting it.[2]

The Critical Role of “Spreading the Word” 

Terror is a tactical use of violence, by governments[3] or dissident groups, to “coerce the enemy rather than weaken him militarily” (Schelling 1966, p. 17).  That is, it is a strategic use of violence targeting something that has little, if any, military value, but will “terrorize” an audience by appalling, concerning, and troubling the members of that audience (Stohl 1988).  When used by dissident groups, such as BH, the strategic purpose of terror tactics tends to be some mix of three things:

1. Incentivize the terrorized audience to pressure a government to change policy

2. Demonstrate a government’s inability to provide security (and thereby, rule)[4]

3. Visibility (of both the organization and the cause) and Recruitment

Terror as a tactic fails, therefore, if everyone “keeps a stiff upper lip,” as Londoner’s are said to have done during Hitler’s Blitz of World War II, and ignores it.  Why?  Because strategic objectives one and three are each undermined.

Stiff upper lip: A man determined to keep a sense of normality reads a book on a park bench as a moored barrage balloon, designed to scupper air attacks, floats in the background and a second, right, soars above . Source: The Daily Mail.

Paul Wilkinson‘s treatment of the mass media’s role in supporting objectives one and three remains useful (from  Terrorism versus Democracy: the Liberal State Response).

In the process of attempting to spread terror among a wider target group, some channel or medium of transmitting information, however informal and localised, will inevitably be involved.

With a nod to Scarfe’s drawing (above), ask yourself this: what is BH’s “megaphone” to shout at the world what it “wants”?

That question highlights the issue.  And while social media did not exist when Wilkinson was writing, he did recognize that the medium of transmission need not be formal.  And social media is certainly not local.  As such, those of us with accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. are in “the game” in a way we were not in the past.

So, I want to know: as a member of the audience, whatch’ya gonna do?  Will you emote, or will you behave strategically?

Moral Equivalence?

As an aspie the behavior of folks often strikes me as a bit puzzling, until I think about it and learn about or construct an account.  It does not come naturally to me to decry the kidnapping of almost 300 girls. Why not?  I don’t “immediately understand” why we privilege these girls over, say, the much, much larger number of victims of sex trafficking in Thailand (to pick a single example).  Do we value Nigerian girls over Thai girls?  Are the Nigerian girls any more “innocent”?  Of course not.  Indeed, you may find these rhetorical questions offensive.

What is different about the recently kidnapped Nigerian girls is that it is a dramatic, single event, much like the kidnapping and massacre of almost 200 school children in Russia back in 2004.  It is literally—and this is important—a made for media consumption event.  Human trafficking of girls to work in brothels serving sex tourists is a for profit enterprise.  The perpetrators do not want media attention–quite the opposite.

But groups that commit acts of terror don’t just want the attention, they require it.  And your #BringBackOurGirls hashtags, posts, shares, and retweets play an individually small, but collectively substantial, role in aiding the group’s cause. To wit, consider the title of my post: “BH is Winning.” Are people making demands on the government to change its policy?   Is BH more visible today than it was prior to the kidnapping operation, and are their sympathizers more likely today to perceive them as a force to be reckoned with, and hence one to consider supporting?  I think you will agree that the answer is: Yes.

What is to be Done?

OK, as I noted above, I am well aware that I am tilting at a windmill here.  I might as well write a post about people littering, not paying their taxes, etc.  And so I am indulging my own “need to emote” while at the same time asking others to stifle their need to do so.  I’ll plead guilty to that hypocrite charge.  But please allow me to close with a plea nonetheless.

If you would like to do something other than assuage your conscience by sharing your outrage on social media, then choose a human rights network to join and become active on a regular basis (e.g., Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, or a group on this list).  Or you could write a check (e.g., AI, HRW).  But please stop inadvertently contributing to the [fill in here a dissident group that uses terror] cause.

@WilHMoo

[1] Indeed, like everyone else, I frequently free ride myself.

[2] One might divide people into two groups: journalists and everyone else, and argue that only the latter are unwitting.  The argument would observe that journalists, who are professionals, are aware of what I discuss below, and thus are cynics who are aware that their “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage plays into the hands of the strategy of dissident groups that use terror tactics, yet write and run their stories because it raises their profile, enhancing their careers.

[3] Government are by far the most prolific user of terror tactics (Rummel 1994).  Michael Stohl’s various “myths” essays make the point best: 1988, 2001 [pdf], 2008 [gated].  Schelling (1966, p. 17) remains the most useful scholarly definition of terror as a tactic.

[4] Note that terror directly challenges the government’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate use of coercion, which is Max Weber’s classic definition of a state.

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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6 Responses to Boko Haram is Winning, and You are Helping

  1. alakhtal says:

    Reblogged this on Liberalism is Trust Fucked with Prudence. Conservatism is Distrust Tainted with Fear and commented:
    Who’s Sheikh Abubakar Shekau? Meet Bokoharam leader who’ll bring down Nigerian State.
    Everybody must hated me and very, very angry of my deadly silence on Bokoharam alas BH selling Sade. Come to Dubai for coffee. Condoms on me.
    So what’s BH? Is it black, white, Muslim, Christian, Shinto, male, female? What’s the Problem?
    Even NHK is featuring Abubakar Shekau for Academy awards as the salesman of the year for Christian Women. Wow. I need to get his number.
    To understand BH in its habitat you need to forget the GoogledJunk, WikiTrash and Mediawhores manure you read.
    Here’s the deal…
    BH consists of two words; Boko is book means education and Haram means ‘sin’ in Arabic.
    If you join both words Boko+Haram together it means sinful education or forbidden education.
    Abubakar Shekau proclaimed himself as the head of Bokoharam and said: “Do not think jihad is over. Rather, jihad has just begun.” he’s damn right though he should declared war 60 years ago.
    The conquest began when Shell Market invaded Nigeria to loot every molecule of hydrocarbon beneath earth, river, lake, and ocean.
    Shell Market conquistadores ain’t Arm Forced Mercenaries as BP and Halliburton.
    They’re frogmarched Evangelical Priests who religiously enjoyed converting Nigerian pagan natives to Christian.
    They educated ‘em and turned ‘em to corrupt filthy rich Nigerian elites to rule over the Nigerian Muslim majority to kill any muslim stops shell market looting Nigeria.
    Education, jobs and business opportunities were forbidden for Muslims.
    This prejudice gave the birth BH alas Bokoharam. Boring isn’t it but true.
    Sheikh Abubakar Shekau hates the blame game and masters killing Male Christians and selling their women on spot market, he ain’t stop until Shell Market flees Nigeria.
    The war ain’t personal its purely business.
    Ruthfully yours

  2. alakhtal says:

    Who’s Sheikh Abubakar Shekau? Meet Bokoharam leader who’ll bring down Nigerian State.
    Everybody must hated me and very, very angry of my deadly silence on Bokoharam alas BH selling Sade. Come to Dubai for coffee. Condoms on me.
    So what’s BH? Is it black, white, Muslim, Christian, Shinto, male, female? What’s the Problem?
    Even NHK is featuring Abubakar Shekau for Academy awards as the salesman of the year for Christian Women. Wow. I need to get his number.
    To understand BH in its habitat you need to forget the GoogledJunk, WikiTrash and Mediawhores manure you read.
    Here’s the deal…
    BH consists of two words; Boko is book means education and Haram means ‘sin’ in Arabic.
    If you join both words Boko+Haram together it means sinful education or forbidden education.
    Abubakar Shekau proclaimed himself as the head of Bokoharam and said: “Do not think jihad is over. Rather, jihad has just begun.” he’s damn right though he should declared war 60 years ago.
    The conquest began when Shell Market invaded Nigeria to loot every molecule of hydrocarbon beneath earth, river, lake, and ocean.
    Shell Market conquistadores ain’t Arm Forced Mercenaries as BP and Halliburton.
    They’re frogmarched Evangelical Priests who religiously enjoyed converting Nigerian pagan natives to Christian.
    They educated ‘em and turned ‘em to corrupt filthy rich Nigerian elites to rule over the Nigerian Muslim majority to kill any muslim stops shell market looting Nigeria.
    Education, jobs and business opportunities were forbidden for Muslims.
    This prejudice gave the birth BH alas Bokoharam. Boring isn’t it but true.
    Sheikh Abubakar Shekau hates the blame game and masters killing Male Christians and selling their women on spot market, he ain’t stop until Shell Market flees Nigeria.
    The war ain’t personal its purely business.
    Ruthfully yours

  3. Harvey says:

    This is not my area of expertise so perhaps I’m missing some nuisance in your argument, but your logic here in claiming that we as part of the international audience are “helping” Boko Haram seems flawed to me. While I agree with your summary of the strategic reasons for the use of terror by rebel groups, I believe your application of it to this case adopts a skewed perspective (which perhaps places too much emphasis on goal #3). If Nigeria were completed isolated from the international audience, Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the school girls would clearly promote strategic goals 1 and 2 that you list based on this action’s effect on the domestic (and regional) audience. This situation would be equivalent to the international audience ignoring the situation completely even if they were aware of it. So at worse, we as the international audience can do no more to help Boko Haram than in a situation with no social media and little western mass media awareness of what is happening. Moreover, in contrast to your claim, the growing awareness of the international audience due to the nature of the act and the global reach of social media appears to be undermining the effectiveness of this terror act in promoting strategic goal #1 by pressuring the Nigerian government to rescue the girls rather than make concessions to Boko Haram. Similarly, the international attention appears to be leading the US and other western nations to provide the Nigerian govt with the military force to combat the rebels and provide better security, thereby undermining strategic goal #2. In short, by my interpretation, the international attention can only help when compared to a world with no social media where Boko Haram’s actions would only terrorize the domestic (or local regional) audience. In other words, it’s much more effective to use terror to get concessions out of an isolated third world govt than one backed by the military force of major western powers, and it appears to me that Boko Haram may have overplayed their terror strategy by choosing an action that is drawing more international attention than usual.

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Thanks Harvey. Consider Black September’s 1972 Munich kidnapping and murder and its impact on the trajectory of the Palestinian movement. Strongly contrary to your view. More generally, as symmetric conflict does not play out as you imagine.

  4. Pingback: Boko Haram is Winning, and You Are Helping | Political Violence @ a Glance

  5. Sam Bell says:

    Will,

    I think this forthcoming paper I have in PRQ with Chad Clay, Amanda Murdie, and Jim Piazza speaks a bit to the problem you discuss in your post:

    http://prq.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/03/20/1065912914527798.abstract

    We find that states with more transparent governments are prone to terrorist attacks for some of the reasons that you discuss above.

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