Boko Haram made 'tactical error' kidnapping Nigerian schoolgirls

The Islamic militant group Boko Haram has been waging attacks in Nigeria for half a decade, but some analysts believe the recent kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls was not only outrageous but a strategic error.

Nigerian government accepting help from other countries in tracking down militants

Abubakar Shekau, pictured, is the leader of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, which has taken responsibility for a series of brazen attacks in north and central Nigeria. (Associated Press)

Boko Haram, the militant group that denounces Western education and wishes to establish an independent Islamist state in northern Nigeria, has been waging violent attacks in the country for the last five years.

But some analysts believe the group's recent kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls — coupled with a pledge that they would be sold into slavery — was not only outrageous but a tactical error that has been denounced even by prominent Sunni Muslim authorities.

"Morally speaking, it's horrible, there's no doubt," says Cedric Jourde, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa and an expert on political Islam. He also believes that from a strategic perspective, it's "probably a mistake."

"Abducting and then selling young girls — that is just too far," he says. "This is way too much and, probably in this case, that's the move they should not have made."

Sola Tayo, an associate fellow with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, concedes the kidnappings have added "a new dynamic" to the conflict, but she isn't sure that it will ultimately hurt this particular jihadist group.

"Have they gone too far this time? It is difficult to say, because we know what the group's ultimate aim is, but we don't know how they intend to execute it," she says.

Denounced by Muslim authority

Formed in 2002 by cleric Mohammad Yusuf, Boko Haram's stated goal has always been to create an independent state in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim and suffers from abject poverty.

The group views the central government not only as negligent but illegitimate, and wishes to establish a state governed by sharia law.

Over the past five years, it has maintained a consistent reign of attacks on police stations, churches, markets and schools.

In the last week, the group has received worldwide attention after claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of the nearly 300 female students from a school in northern Nigeria in mid-April. By Wednesday of this week, there were reports the group had abducted 19 more girls.

In a video released earlier this week, the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, cited a God-given right to abduct and sell the girls.

The kidnappings have led to protests across Nigeria and even the threat of action by some foreign governments. But Jourde says one of the most forceful denunciations came from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, widely regarded as the most prominent Sunni Muslim authority in the world.

On Tuesday, the Egyptian university released a statement calling for the "immediate release" of the girls and saying that harming them would violate "the noble teachings of Islam."

"If your goal is to get more followers and gain support, when Al-Azhar is criticizing you, I don't think you're scoring too many points," says Jourde.

'Difficult group to parse'

Limited intelligence on Boko Haram makes it difficult to understand the group's motivations and strategies, says Christopher Anzalone with the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

There is little known about its structure other than what can be gleaned from a series of videos released to the media. These videos tend to feature Shekau, who is believed to have assumed leadership of the group after the police execution of Mohammad Yusuf in 2009.

Boko Haram is a "a very difficult group to parse," Anzalone says.

He points out that "it seems that what they are doing is quite ideological." He adds, though, that if their goal is "to establish an Islamic state in the north, their strategic decisions don't seem to be furthering it."

Anzalone says one of Boko Haram's basic assumptions is that traditional leaders in north Nigeria are "false Muslims," and the group is trying to establish a system of governance that eschews Western influence.

But Boko Haram's campaign of seemingly indiscriminate violence in the region has alienated more people than it has won over, he says.

"They've killed as many Nigerian Muslims as Christians," says Anzalone. "In my view, BokoHaram has become more of a cult around the personality and personage of Shekau."

Jourde says that the history of colonialism in parts of Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia has given rise to many groups that denounce Western teachings.

While such groups often exploit feelings of disenfranchisement in order to win support, there are certain acts that are so audacious and repugnant that they not only gain worldwide attention but undermine a group's moral authority within the community.

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience arrive for a dinner with the French President and other dignitaries in Paris in December. The president's wife said this week she didn't believe the girls were abducted and that it was a plot to give her husband's government a bad name. (Reuters)

He cites the Pakistan Taliban's attempted assassination of young Malala Yousafzai in 2012 while on her way to school as one of those acts that demonstrated the savagery of the cause.  

Daniel Douek, a political scientist at Concordia University with a specialty in African politics, says that while it may be difficult to understand Boko Haram's strategy, he doesn't believe the schoolgirl abductions necessarily hurt its aim of establishing an Islamic state.

"There are many different ways of interpreting the behaviour of a nebulous group like this," he says.

The kidnappings, he suggests, could be seen as part of a broader campaign that has had the effect of "humiliating the Nigerian government and emphasizing its weakness and inability to protect its own citizens."


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