Fighting Boko Haram: Media accounts tell more about the war than the enemy

I'm glad that mainstream media are keeping our attention on the ongoing tragedy of Nigeria and Boko Haram. But not everyone does it equally well -- and some of the better-known outfits, not as well as you'd expect.

The Nigerian military has resumed raids on the Islamist guerrilla group, rescuing hundreds of women and children; it has issued a "Wanted" poster of the top 100 leaders in the group; and an international task force is mustering for a new round of attacks on the militants.

All this is in multiple reports, but none of them has it all. And few offer background on the warped version of Islam that underlies Boko Haram's basic assumptions.

Some of the reports repeat the horrendous numbers: thousands dead, 2.1 million refugees since 2009. Those are vital stats to remember. But the reports also need to keep plain the ideology of Boko Haram.

Take yesterday's "Big Story" in the much-quoted Associated Press:

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigerian troops have rescued 338 captives, almost all children and women, from Boko Haram camps in a northeastern forest, the military said Wednesday.
Thirty extremists were killed Tuesday in attacks on two camps on the fringes of the Islamic insurgents' holdout in Sambisa Forest, according to a Defense Headquarters statement on social media.
Separately troops ambushed and killed four suspects on a bombing mission in northeastern Adamawa state, it said. Hundreds of people have died in suicide bombing attacks mainly targeting mosques and markets in recent months.

Did you notice the attribution? A "Defense Headquarters statement on social media." And no one was directly quoted or even named. This despite the fact that the much smaller African website Sahara Reporters did get a name -- Army spokesperson Colonel SK Usman -- although apparently only on a press release.

I see more skepticism over the regional military force -- 8,700 men from Chad, Benin, Niger and Cameroon as well as Nigeria -- that's supposed to make the last push on Boko Haram after the rainy season. As Reuters reports, the force was supposed to be "fully functional in July," but plans weren’t even finished until late August.

Reuters notes that international attacks earlier this year broke up the large-scale Boko Haram forces, but smaller bands are making raids and suicide bombings, Islamic State style, in border areas around Lake Chad.

Still another view emerges in the Wall Street Journal, which emphasizes the adaptability of Boko Haram. The Journal quotes Gen. David Rodriguez of the U.S.' Africa Command:

Gen. Rodriguez said Boko Haram has altered its propaganda as a result of its growing ties with Islamic State. Boko Haram, Gen. Rodriguez said, has also refined its use of roadside bombs and suicide bombings, mirroring tactics honed by Islamic State.
The U.S. effort to train and share intelligence with military forces in Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and other African countries have helped push back Boko Haram’s territorial control, forcing it to alter its tactics, Gen. Rodriguez said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The article also notes that in April, Boko Haram began calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province. But aside from the bombings and recruiting propaganda, the 700-word story doesn't hint at any ideology that might have made the two groups friendly.

Several of the articles do say that President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Muslim, has made defeating Boko Haram a top priority since taking office in May. A couple suggest that the terrorist-style attacks are a direct challenge to his pledge to rid Nigeria of the group by December. The International Business Times reports that Boko Haram killed about 800 Nigerians during Buhari's first 100 days in office.

I'm especially intrigued by the FBI-style most-wanted list, complete with phone hotlines for informants. I like the social-ethics spin by a Nigerian officer, quoted by International Business Times. “The fight against Boko Haram insurgency [is] a collective responsibility of all, including the media,” chief of army staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai says.

IBTimes gets a gold star for quoting Buratai and another live source, Yakubu Gowon, the nation's former military chief. Gowon confirms that taking down Boko Haram will be tough by December.

None of these stories, though, lay bare the mindset that has inspired Boko Haram to lay waste so much of West Africa. For that, we have to turn to BBC News' story on the most-wanted list.

After a few paragraphs on the list and Buhari's pledge to destroy the group, the story explains that "Boko Haram is allied with the Islamic State (IS) group which is fighting for a global caliphate - a state governed in accordance with Islamic law." And the article ends with a six-point "Boko Haram at a glance":

* Founded in 2002, initially focused on opposing Western-style education -- Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
* Launched military operations in 2009
* Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria, abducted hundreds, including at least 200 schoolgirls
* Joined Islamic State, now calls itself "West African province"
* Seized large area in north-east, where it declared caliphate
* Regional force has retaken most territory this year

The article also links to a longer backgrounder from May. Among its facts:

Nigeria's militant Islamist group Boko Haram -- which has caused havoc in Africa's most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions -- is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.
Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it "haram", or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society.
This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

BBC also gives the group's official name as Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." That makes the group very different from a mere separationist militia, methinks. It's more like an extremist's extremist group -- petty enough to tell everyone what to wear, violent enough to blow up innocents just to make a point.

Media are in the knowledge business. You need to know the facts. And you need to know the facts about, in this case, a group that is clearly the enemy.



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