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Boko Haram militants suspected in murderous attack on Nigerian school

February 25, 2014 at 6:33 PM EDT
At least 58 students were murdered at a Nigerian agricultural college by suspected Boko Haram militants, who set a locked dormitory ablaze and cut the throats of those who tried to escape. In the last month, more than 300 people in northeastern Nigeria have been killed by the militant group. J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council joins Judy Woodruff to discuss instability in Nigeria and the growth of Boko Haram.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Nigeria, where almost 60 teenage boys were brutally killed early this morning. It’s believed to be the latest in a string of attacks by a reemerging extremist group.

Islamist militants from Boko Haram have attacked northeastern Nigeria with a vengeance this month, murdering more than 300 people. They reportedly struck again before dawn today at a boarding school in Yobe State in a town near the capital city. Gunmen torched a boys dormitory, burning many alive, and cutting the throats of any who tried to escape.

That came one day after Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, rejected one regional governor’s criticism of efforts to fight the militants.

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN, Nigeria: If the governor of Borno State felt that the Nigerian armed forces are not useful, then I will pull them out from Borno State.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jonathan declared a state of emergency last May, and the military flushed the insurgents from cities, only to see them regroup in forests and caves.

Boko Haram’s fight for an Islamic state in northern Nigeria has terrorized the country for 4.5 years, leaving thousands dead and forcing thousands more to leave for their own safety. The violence now threatens the stability of Africa’s largest oil-producing state. The U.S. is trying to help.

In October, American special forces held a two-week training session with the Nigerian military.

To tell us more about Boko Haram and what their recent attacks mean for Nigeria and the region, I’m joined by Peter Pham, who is director of the Africa Program at the Atlantic Council.

Welcome to the program. Tell us more about who and what Boko Haram is.

J. PETER PHAM, the Atlantic Council: Well, Boko Haram started well over a decade ago as a somewhat syncretistic, eccentric…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syncretistic meaning?

J. PETER PHAM: A mixture of Islam and local beliefs, a very small group, a couple hundred followers.

Then in 2009, the Nigerian government moved against them, killed most of them, including an extrajudicial killing of the leader of the group, and thought that it ended this group. Instead, what happened was the surviving several dozen aligned themselves closely with al-Qaida-linked militants in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as Al-Shabab in Somalia, got training and came back in 2011 as sort of Boko Haram version 20.0, more deadly, introducing for the first time vehicle bombs, suicide bombings into Nigeria, attacking U.N. headquarters.

And then after the Mali intervention last year by the French, where Boko Haram has some — operating some training camps, they came back to Nigeria, what I call now version 3.0, with foreign fighters and an even more virulent ideology?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is that ideology? What’s the mission?

J. PETER PHAM: They want to overturn the Nigerian state and replace it with a fantasy Islamic caliphate of some sort that goes beyond even the imposition of Shia law, which a number of northern Nigerian states have already imposed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you say fantasy?

J. PETER PHAM: It’s fantasy because it’s not rooted in any history or any beliefs. It’s certainly not supported by the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims.

These are people whose very name — the name Boko Haram means literally book-learning, Western education is sacrilegious. They reject learning. This why there are these attacks on schools, on young people who just want to learn some skills. This was an agricultural college that was attacked today.

And so they attacked it for two reasons, both to show the government is incapable of protecting citizens, and secondly to attack even the rudiments of Western modern science.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this brutality we described is typical for how they operate?

J. PETER PHAM: Increasingly so.

It didn’t start out that way, but they are increasingly acting in this way. And, regrettably, the Nigerian’s response is often very ham-fisted, very brutal in its own. And there have been human rights concerns that have been raised by human rights groups, as well as our Department of State.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about security? What kind of efforts are under way to protect against the attacks, and where are they operating inside Nigeria?

J. PETER PHAM: They’re operating primarily in the northern part of the country, and specifically in the northeastern part, along the borders with Niger and Cameroon.

And they also have refuge outside Nigeria. They go across the borders to get away from the Nigerian forces. Nigeria has thrown its military against them. But to fight this type of group — it’s a counterinsurgency. They need to secure people. They need to provide security for ordinary Nigerians, win hearts and minds. And, right now, they are only pursuing a military strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the population of the country? I mean, do they — what’s their view? Are they completely against what they’re doing? Do they have sympathy among the people of…

J. PETER PHAM: Well, they have — the people in the northern part of Nigeria, which is the audience that Boko Haram is addressing, are certainly marginalized economically and politically.

So, they have some legitimate grievances, but they’re not represented by this extremist group. But, unfortunately, a ham-fisted government response relying only on brute force that displaces more people doesn’t win the government any applause or any support either.

So, in many ways, the poor people of Nigeria are caught between these extremists who don’t represent them and a government that’s not responding to their needs for security in a concrete, holistic fashion. And so they’re really in a difficult place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think we reported — I know I saw a report that said that security forces at this particular school where the attack took place yesterday were believed to have left before the attack happened.

I mean, is it — is this a matter of there’s some sort of inside information being passed around?

J. PETER PHAM: There are some allegations of that kind.

In fact, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has accused even members of parliament of colluding with Boko Haram in order to make him look weak. He’s facing a very tough reelection less than a year from now. So, there are certainly those allegations of his politicizing the fight against this group or people using this group to make him look weak.

And that certainly enters the mixture here. It’s a very complicated picture. It requires a great deal of nuance and a broad-based strategy that so far I don’t see any evidence of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we also reported a moment ago, that U.S. special forces in there training. Does that training have anything to do with the Boko Haram problem?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I think it helps with the Nigerians, but the Nigerians have been responding to this largely as a hard military, in a sense, a kind of conventional, going in with tanks, armored personnel vehicles.

And some of the lessons that U.S. forces learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, that you have to secure the population, work with local leaders, several of those — I imagine what they’re trying to impart. Whether it takes, that’s a whole ‘nother story. But at least they’re trying to pass on the best practices or — to the Nigerians, and hopefully they pick up on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other question I think one has is, we know Nigeria is not the poorest country on the continent. They have enormous revenues from oil. So, why aren’t they able to put together a better security force or approach?

J. PETER PHAM: It’s certainly not for want of resources, as you point out.

But just a week ago, Nigeria’s well-respected central bank governor was suspended by the president because he had the audacity to point out that there are at least $20 billion in oil revenues that had gone missing in the last few years. And so, for his trouble, he was suspended from his job.

So there’s certainly corruption. There’s a lack of political will, and those are the key elements that need to be brought up. It’s not a military answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, Peter Pham, how much — how much is the population to — how much should they be fearing what Boko Haram does in the weeks and months to come?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, unfortunately, with the politicized climate, the lead-up to election, one expects both more military action on the part of the government and increased activities on the part of Boko Haram to make the government look weak.

So the people are really caught in between all that. So, unfortunately, it’s going to be a difficult time for the people of Nigeria for the next few months.


Peter Pham, the Atlantic Council, we thank you.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have more on the extremist group Boko Haram, who they are and what they believe. You can read a Council of Foreign Relations backgrounder on our home page.