Is the way we respond to terrorism actually harmful?

By Sam Patterson

Between the 14th and 15th of April 2014, over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the Nigerian town of Chibok in Borno state by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. The kidnapping provoked global outrage on social media, from celebrities, from politicians, including perhaps most notably David Cameron and Michele Obama who touted the Twitter hashtag ‘#Bringbackourgirls.’ Since the event, comments have arisen along the lines of “the world should be doing more to secure the safe return of the Chibok girls.’ Although I would certainly not be opposed to a global effort with the intention being to modernise the Nigerian security forces and provide assistance in the hope of the safe return of the Chibok girls, those who call on Twitter for the world to do more probably have no idea what such an effort would entail, and are probably blissfully unaware of developments on the ground in Nigeria.

A short introduction to Boko Haram for those who haven’t yet encountered them: A militant group running amok in the North Eastern corner of Nigeria, Boko Haram (which loosely translates to ‘reject the teachings of the West’) have at various points controlled a territory around the size of Belgium. Boko Haram are nowhere near as well funded or well equipped, as organised or as large, as effective or as prepared for actual government as ISIS, yet they exhibit precisely as much brutality and disdain for human life as their Middle Eastern counterparts. Boko Haram’s relative ineptitude is clearly visible in their propaganda output. Whilst ISIS regularly releases extremely crisp propaganda videos and also maintains a well-designed monthly which really does give Quench a run for its money, Boko Haram’s propaganda videos take the form of shaky hand held video footage. Also, Boko Haram’s leader: Abubakar Shekau is not nearly as contained as ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi. Whilst Al-Bagdadi has only appeared in one video, giving a calm speech after a very well-rehearsed call to prayer, Abubakar Shekau has appeared in multiple grainy, bad quality recordings and has been reported dead multiple times (one can only assume he employs body doubles). Boko Haram are a rag tag bunch of disorganised ineffective psychopaths, and Nigeria’s new Muslim president Muhammadu Buhari has described Boko Haram as ‘mindless bigots masquerading as Muslims.’

Although some escapees have been rescued, no word of the wellbeing of the bulk of the girls has emerged. However, in April of this year, a short video was released by Boko Haram showing at least 15 of the girls, alive, standing against a wall. The video was sent to the Nigerian government as a ‘proof of life’, and is currently under analysis. Both Nigeria’s previous president ‘Goodluck Jonathan’ and Nigeria’s current president have come under fire for not doing enough to combat the rebel group, and the group’s atrocities have only grown in depravity as of late. Earlier this year they launched an attack on the village of Dalori, killing many, burning tens of schoolchildren to death. Many have called for the world to ‘do more’ in the fight against Boko Haram. It is unsurprising, that those who call for the world to do more, rarely deliberate on exactly what this effort would actually constitute.

You might have heard it said, more die of bee stings each year than of terrorism in the US. Corrupt government, lack of access to healthcare, natural and man made disasters (such as famines), all as equally scary as terrorism, yet groups like Boko Haram occupy so much space in the press. Why?

There are many reasons, but one is agency. Agency draws attention. It’s as simple as that. Disasters which are caused by the actions of intelligent agents, unsurprisingly, draw our attention much more than disasters with no (or invisible) human involvement. An earthquake that kills 300 occupies the headlines for a day, a terrorist attack that kills 300 occupies the headlines for a year. A terrorist attack that kills 3,000 occupies the headlines for a generation. Although it would certainly benefit the world if we news-consumers in Northern Europe could muster up as much passion for homelessness in Kinshasa as we can for the activities of terrorist groups, that would be fantastic, but it is unlikely. The reasons for this are totally intelligible from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, and to be honest, when you’re watching “10 worst serial killers” on Youtube at 2am, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Although I don’t have the statistics to hand, I’m willing to wager that the number of young girls who go missing in Pakistan on a weekly basis is likely similar to the number of schoolgirls who were tragically kidnapped by Boko Haram. If we were genuinely concerned about using our first world wealth to decrease the sufferings and hardships of those inhabiting the more chaotic corners of the developing world, we would be channelling resources to providing sustainable water sources, medical supplies and preventative items, we would be aiding with infrastructural and economic development. Although our hearts go out to the Chibok girls, it simply wouldn’t constitute a sensible use of the overseas aid budget, to blindly channel funds to the Nigerian military and hope for the best. This mistake was made by ‘Invisible Children’, who were disgraced after it emerged that their campaign to end the campaign of Ugandan Christian militant leader Joseph Kony, amounted mainly to providing funds to the Ugandan military. The only alternative would be to actually become involved in the conflict, taking a role in cooperating with and directing Nigerian security forces. Whether or not Emma Watson has approached President Buhari on this, I am yet to confirm.

Not only are the calls to ‘Bringbackourgirls’ totally lacking any constructing suggestion as to how exactly we do so, sadly, they are playing directly into the hands of Boko Haram. This is exactly the reaction they want. Anybody who follows groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS in the news, is aware that one of their main aims is to acquire global outrage at their atrocities. As I’m sure you pondered earlier in this article, ‘what exactly is the practical advantage in burning tens of schoolchildren to death?’, well the answer is, Emma Watson’s reaction. Not only does global press attention aid the notoriety and terror credentials of groups like Boko Haram, it attracts potential members, who would not have even heard of the group. When Boko Haram were planning this mass-abduction, it’s likely they had no idea that the First Lady of the White House, the PM of the UK, and Hermione would be as loud as they were. Such was the stuff of their wildest dreams. Those who post Twitter responses to terror attacks along the lines of ‘Bringbackourgirls’ clearly do not understand terrorism. How it functions, nor the aims of its orchestrators.

Just like anybody else, my heart goes out to the Chibok girls. But as someone who is at least half way aware of the endless extent of global suffering and crises, it goes out no more to the Chibok girls than it does to victims of any other crisis in any other part of the world. Those who call for us to ‘do more’ are of course welcome to do so, but they should research the situation first and outline exactly what it is they think we should do. The complex and perhaps disheartening realities of Nigerian politics do not provide for such a simple solution.

We should try to maintain an objective view of global affairs. We ought to be just as concerned about suffering and disasters when the causes are myserious and complex, rather than merely simple and violent.