Boko Haram continues to gain momentum. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that kidnappings of students and Christians have dramatically increased, while Nigeria’s state and the traditional rulers of the Islamic north are continuing to lose control over significant chunks of the country.Dealing with Boko Haram will be tougher in some respects than dealing with than ISIS. ISIS appeared in a part of the world with millennia of experience of strong states. As bad as Syria’s problems are, it is much easier to see that some kind of stability there will lead to effective governance and development.This is not so in places like Mali and northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and its fellow African jihadis flourish. Francis Fukuyama’s new book describes Nigeria as “one of the most tragic development failures in the contemporary world,” where a corrupt post-colonial state is propped up by traditional leaderships and tribal institutions reeling from the pressures of modernization. In this sense, Boko Haram is more like the Taliban than ISIS. Both jihadi groups inhabit a space where their rivals—central governments, bureaucratic institutions—are painfully weak.“Boondock jihadis” like these are, in some ways, less of a danger to the rest of the world. Syria is much more accessible to jihadis from Western Europe, where the Schengen Agreement allows them to travel to Turkey with a simple identification card. It’s only a small hop from Istanbul to the Levant. Syria also has strong links to global financial and trade centers, unlike northeastern Nigeria or central Afghanistan. Nevertheless, these “boondock jihadis” can provide shelter and space to groups like al-Qaeda; it was from his refuge in Afghanistan that Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks.
What all this says is that we are in this fight for the long haul. So far, the civilized world’s record on countering these groups has been mixed. Successes, like the overthrow of the Taliban and the killing of Bin Laden, exist alongside very serious failures. The world’s jihadi movements were in better shape when Bush left office than when he was sworn in, and they appear to be gaining ground under President Obama as well.
So, what’s to be done? First, we shouldn’t panic. Cool heads are needed in hot times, and going all batty over the potential threats these groups pose won’t help us deal effectively with them. Beyond that, we need to study these groups, think much harder about both our defensive and our offensive strategies, and simply face the facts. We are in what could still be the early stages of a long war against an ideology based on powerful theological and social currents in the world’s second largest religious community (even though most don’t adhere to the terrorists’ ideology) at a time when small groups can wreak great havoc thanks to improvements in technology.
In the Bush years, America was in a state of emergency, where we threw everything we could think of at a horrifying new problem. In the Obama years, at least until the Administration’s “easy does it” philosophy came crashing down in ruins in Syria and Iraq, we tried to downgrade the threat even as we upped measures like drone attacks behind the scenes. Of course, we eventually found and dealt with Bin Laden. But in the future, we’re going to have to come to grips with the reality that the threat remains as serious and in some ways as unpredictable as we feared in the Bush years. We have to remember to still go at it in a disciplined, serious way.
After the midterm elections, Americans will begin to inspect the presidential hopefuls competing for the right to lead the nation after January 2017. Understanding how each candidate intends to cope with a deadly, unpredictable, but long-term enemy will play a key role in the national conversation—as it should.