Finding Nigeria's missing girls

Protests have erupted in Nigeria two weeks after the Islamic militant group Boko Haram captured more than 200 schoolgirls. Nigerians must be careful not to overreact and play into the terrorists' strategy.

AP Photo
A girl wearing a T-Shirt with the inscription ''Chibok brings our girls back Alive'' attends a demonstration in Lagos calling on government to rescue girls captured at the Chibok school in the northeast.

The world has been closely following news of two large disasters, the missing Malaysian airliner and the sunken South Korean ferry. But another mass tragedy has received far less attention even though it deserves special concern.

On April 15, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram captured more than 200 girls from a state school in Nigeria’s far northeast. The girls, Christian and Muslim, are between the ages of 16 and 18. But it is assumed the group’s intent was to further one of its main causes: ridding Nigeria of any Western-style education, especially for girls. In fact, Boko Haram means “Western education is blasphemy” in the local language.

Last year it killed dozens of students. In February, 59 boys were killed at a boarding school. Since 2009, it has steadily increased its operations, with an estimated 1,500 people killed this year. The capture of the girls has so far triggered the strongest reaction. On Wednesday, hundreds of Nigerians, mainly women, began protests to pressure the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to find the girls. At least one report by a civil society organization claims the girls have been married off to the highest-bidding militants, perhaps across the border in Chad.

Such horrific acts bring strong emotional responses, much like those that Americans felt after the 2012 shootings at a school in Newtown, Conn. First there is fear for the girls. Then compassion for grieving families. And then either anger or hopelessness about attempts to rescue them.

These emotions should be taken seriously. At the same time, in cases of terrorism such as this one, it is important to recognize that terrorists hope that strong emotions will lead to an overreaction that can further their cause.

Boko Haram is one group that likely calculates its attacks to evoke a strong reaction in hopes that missteps will drive more Muslims to its side. In its early years, it attacked mainly Muslims, who dominated the population in northern Nigeria. But when that strategy only hardened Muslims against the group, it turned to killing Christians.

This led to harsher retaliation by the Nigerian military and to the United States designating Boko Haram as a “foreign terrorist organization” last year. Both those reactions fed into the group’s propaganda of a Christian-dominated government and “Christian West” hurting Muslims in Nigeria.

The Nigerian military has indeed committed abuses in its attempt to wipe out Boko Haram. President Jonathan has also not done enough to win over Muslims with better economic development of the north. But to his credit he chose a prominent Muslim, Col. Mohammed Sambo Dasuki, as his national security adviser. Dasuki has used a “soft” approach to terrorism, hoping to split off moderates within Boko Haram and to open negotiations with the group.

With Nigerians heading into elections next year, political emotions are already high. With this tragedy, Nigerians must now unite behind a calm effort to bring the girls home and avoid playing into Boko Haram’s hands. The government can do much to prevent another mass attack. But it must also help Nigerians understand how terrorists operate.

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