The Magazine

Deadly Diversity

Nigeria’s Islamist war on Christianity.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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Boko Haram attacks anyone, Christian or Muslim, who rejects its views. In July 2009, it attacked police stations, prisons, schools, churches, and homes, burning everything in its path. Its violence spread through Borno, Kano, and Yobe states, particularly targeting Christians. Many were forced, under threat of death, to renounce their faith; 700 people were killed in the town of Maiduguri alone. 

In August 2011, Boko Haram bombed the U.N. headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, and killed 23 people. Christmas is a focal time for attacks by Islamic extremists. This past Christmas, churches were bombed in Jos, Kano, Damaturu, and Gadaka. A blast at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Abuja killed 35 and wounded many others. These coordinated attacks, in the Northeast, North, and center of the country, reveal an increased sophistication.

In January, Boko Haram warned the millions of Christians living in the North that they had three days to leave or would be attacked. Gun and bomb attacks in Kano killed at least 186 people and put thousands to flight. In 2011, Boko Haram killed about 500 people; in just the first month of 2012, it killed over half that many.

Nigeria’s conflicts are complex, but Boko Haram’s explicit targeting of Christians is undeniable. Leader Abubakar Shekau has declared: “Everyone knows that democracy and the constitution is paganism. .  .  . You Christians should know that Jesus .  .  . is not the Son of God. This religion of Christianity you are practicing is not a religion of God​—​it is paganism. .  .  . We are trying to coerce you to embrace Islam, because that is what God instructed us to do.”

Boko Haram has many layers, from a disciplined core to a stable of alienated youth, but its center is now linked to other terrorists. On August 9, 2009, the group explicitly aligned itself with al Qaeda, and reportedly some of its personnel have trained in Mali with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In turn, AQIM says it will give Boko Haram “whatever support we can in men, arms, and munitions to enable you to defend our people in Nigeria.” Boko Haram is now morphing into something like Somalia’s al-Shebaab.

Still, for all its problems, Nigeria is not Somalia. Moreover, since the Persian Gulf is looking ever more precarious, and Nigeria lies near the center of one of the world’s most significant hydrocarbon areas, it should draw the attention of even the most flinty-eyed realists. 

Fortunately, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), especially its program of regional counterterrorism partnerships, was formed with such situations in mind. Nigeria’s security forces need equipping to counter Boko Haram and its imitators, and training to do so without the brutality that would feed their recruitment. While it is facile to link international terrorism with poverty, Nigeria’s -millions of marginalized Muslim youth are easy recruits to violence. Supporters of both hard and soft power can find common cause in this effort​—​and together hope that a president named Goodluck will live up to his name.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and coauthor, with Nina Shea, of the just-released Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide.

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