Changing tactics on terrorism

Nigeria has been hit by a series of abductions of schoolchildren by jihadis. Treating them as military opponents hasn’t succeeded. A new program offers amnesty and a way back into society.

A group of more than 300 schoolboys gather following their release after they were kidnapped Dec. 18, 2020, in Katsina, Nigeria. Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadi rebels claimed responsibility.

For as long as there have been groups that resort to violence to advance their political grievances, governments have faced a dilemma over how to respond. Is terrorism an act of war, requiring a military response, or a crime better handled through courts and social reforms?

Nowhere is that question more urgent than in Nigeria, where towns in the north are caught between splintered jihadi groups and the security forces trying to contain them.

The recently released Global Terrorism Index 2020, an annual survey published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney, reported the encouraging news that terrorism worldwide has decreased for a fifth consecutive year. The largest drop occurred in Afghanistan, aided by coordinated international and local security efforts.

Nigeria recorded the second-largest decrease in deaths from acts of terrorism. But there the picture is more complex. While violence between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers has waned, fatal attacks against northern villages increased.

When President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired major general, was elected in 2015, he promised to eradicate the scourge of violence in Nigeria. His most notable target was Boko Haram, a jihadi group that emerged in the northeast in 2009 bent on replacing Western education with Islam.

A year before Mr. Buhari took office, the group raided a predominantly Christian girls school in the town of Chibok and kidnapped 276 students. Many were forced to marry; some were sent on suicide missions. More than 100 remain missing.

The conflict between jihadi groups and Nigerian and regional security forces has escalated under Mr. Buhari. In 2018, Boko Haram raided another girls school in Dapchi, kidnapping more than 100 students.

In a worrying sign that the group’s influence is spreading, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a raid last Friday on a boys school in the northwestern state of Katsina. At least 344 students were abducted and marched into the forest.

By last night, the government had secured the release of most of the boys, but it is not known how.

Human Rights Watch estimates that Boko Haram and a splinter faction, Islamic State in West Africa Province, have killed nearly 500 civilians this year, including 70 farmers in the town of Jere on Dec. 1.

Human rights observers say that atrocities against civilians by Nigerian and regional security forces are a major cause of the jihadi abductions in the country’s north.

One program shows that the government is starting to understand this. The military has begun a pilot program called Operation Safe Corridor that offers jihadis amnesty and a way to integrate back into society. So far more than 160 Boko Haram fighters have laid down their arms.

However modest, it is a start toward a more law-based approach to countering terrorism.

“You often hear this: that states have to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind their back –that essentially that’s the price of civilization, of being lawful. That’s not it at all,” argues Tom Parker, a British counterterrorism expert and former United Nations war crimes investigator. “What you’re really being taught by the law and by human rights standards – it’s more like being trained by a really good trainer. You’re being taught to swing not wildly, not just lashing out, you’re being taught to control your punches.”

The purpose of terrorism is to provoke. Nigeria may be learning that countering terrorism requires balancing the use of force with the power of restraint and compassion.

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