Will a well-meaning social media campaign to rescue kidnapped girls result in military action and, as a result, more blowback against the United States? Could our intervention in Nigeria make Boko Haram stronger?

A man in a webcam photo holds a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls

Could a social media campaign inadvertently strengthen Boko Haram?

In recent days, Americans have become aware of the 276 kidnapped Muslim schoolgirls, taken at gunpoint from their classroom in Nigeria by the militant Boko Haram movement. Though there were several real world demonstrations, many more are taking part in online activism through the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Since the kidnapping, the United States and many other countries sent teams of experts or offered assistance to the Nigerian government — at their request.

But Boko Haram has also stepped up its violence, slaughtering over 300 in the town of Gamboru Ngala in northeastern Nigeria. From the New York Times:

The latest attack, on Monday, followed a classic Boko Haram pattern: Dozens of militants wearing fatigues and wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers descended on the town of Gamboru Ngala, chanting ‘Allahu akbar,’ firing indiscriminately and torching houses. When it was over, at least 336 people had been killed and hundreds of houses and cars had been set on fire, said Waziri Hassan, who lives there, and Senator Ahmed Zanna.

The missing schoolgirls have grabbed the world’s attention, and more offers of help poured in to the Nigerian government on Wednesday from Britain, China and France. But Boko Haram’s deadly attack on Gamboru Ngala was similar to many others in the past several years that drew little or no notice beyond Nigeria. Bodies still lay in the street on Wednesday night, said Mr. Hassan, a cement salesman.

Likewise, Amnesty International officials told RT that Nigerian officials had warning of the kidnapping and did not or could not act:

According to a number of sources interviewed by Amnesty local civilian patrols in Gagilam, a village neighboring Chibok where the girls were abducted, were the first to alert the authorities.The patrols are known as vigilantes and were set up by military and local authorities to counter Boko Haram.

A vigilante patrol in Gaiglam raised the alarm when a group of armed men entered the village on motorbikes and said they were on their way to Chibok. Locals immediately phoned a number of officials to warn them including the Borno State Governor and senior military commanders based in the regional capital Maiduguri.

[...]At about 11:45 the convoy of Boko Harem fighters which by this time consisted of about 200 men on motorbikes and in trucks entered Chibok and a gunfight broke out with the small garrison of 17 police and soldiers who were based in the town. Outnumbered and outgunned the small security force eventually fled the town in the small hours leaving the Boko Haram fighters free to proceed to the girl’s secondary school where they abducted 270 school girls.

Two senior officers in the Nigerian military confirmed to Amnesty that they were aware of the attack even before the phone calls from local officials but were unable to mobilize reinforcements. One officer told the rights group that his soldiers were fearful of engaging the militants who were often better equipped.

It seems, once again, Team America: World Police are preparing to intervene in a complex local situation which we’re ill-equipped to understand or handle. Indeed, while all agree the fate of the kidnapped women is utter tragedy, many of the more sober writers online are beginning to question the wisdom of American involvement. Writing for Medium, Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci notes, “this is but one step in a story that started long before the hashtag, and will not end when the global attention ends.”

After describing how her grandmother narrowly escaped a fate similar to the kidnapped students, she asks “why am I wary of the urge to ‘do something’ about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of these girls? Do they not deserve my grandmother’s small miracle? They do, a hundred thousand times over.” But she warns that there is a crucial difference between internal versus external attention and intervention:

Attention can bring the wrong person to be identified as the bomber in Boston—putting his life in danger; attention thankfully did not lead to a massive external intervention in Uganda (but I wonder how much harder it made it for the country to repair its wounds as only it could?) but it could have; attention even brought on one of the worst mass killings in Iraq—the outrage over the brutal murder of a Yazidi girl was turned by militants into a killing campaign. It’s increasingly clear that (posthumous) attention is what, at least partially, motivates the troubled young men who rampage and kill students in the United States.

[...] Some people have worried that hashtags are powerless, but that has never been my question. In the current configuration, under the right circumstances, hashtags can and do generate attention, and attention has never been powerless. My questions is more this: What happens when attention brings soldiers from far-away lands? What happens when attention itself is part of the reward structure for the cruel?

This is twisted but true: attention itself can be the reward Boko Haram seeks, as it too often the case with groups like that which terrorize their own region. Rewarding their thirst for attention can lead them to repeat the same act that worked so well before. Kidnap girls, which perhaps unexpectedly generates global outrage this time, but now the Great Satan is involved: rinse, repeat.

Attention, to a terrorist group, is often what the well-meaning, outraged response is to your two-bit internet troll: it is the food that feeds them. But despair and throwing up one’s hands in disgust is also the luxury of the unafflicted. So just saying what I said so far is not enough because the analogy with internet trolls break right here since this ‘troll’ holds captive hundreds of girls, kidnapped at gunpoint. But the truth remains: the attention can help fuel the next round.

She contrasts the blowback that results from US intervention with the results of internal action, for example: “In Turkey, outrage over the murder of sixty people, dozens of them in a synagogue during worship, did more harm to Al-Qaeda’s ability to gain any sympathy in Turkey than a million years of propaganda by the United States might have done.”

Jumoke Balogun, writing in Compare Afrique, states her case in even stronger words. Comparing the situation with the Kony2012 debacle, which left the warlord uncaptured and hundreds more American troops wreaking havoc in Africa, she asks,

Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news for you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.

[... W]hen you pressure Western powers, particularly the American government to get involved in African affairs and when you champion military intervention, you become part of a much larger problem. You become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa. This is not good.

[...] The U.S. military conducted 128 separate ‘military activities’ in 28 African countries between June and December of 2013. These are in conjunction to U.S. led drone operations which are occurring in Northern Nigeria and Somalia. There are also counter-terrorism outposts in Djibouti and Niger and covert bases in Ethiopia and the Seychelles which are serving as launching pads for the U.S. military to carry out surveillance and armed drone strikes. [...] Further, a U.S. trained battalion in the Democratic Republic of Congo was denounced by the United Nations for committing mass rapes.

Now the United States is gaining more ground in Africa by sending military advisors and more drones, sorry, I mean security personnel and assets to Nigeria to assist the Nigerian military, who by the way, have a history of committing mass atrocities against the Nigerian people.

The social media campaign is even making new victims out of unrelated women. Photos circulated of the kidnapped girls are actually of unrelated girls from Guinea-Bissau taken by photographer Ami Vitale. She told the New York Times:

These photos have nothing to do with those girls who were kidnapped. These girls are from Guinea-Bissau, and the story I did was about something completely different. They have nothing to do with the terrible kidnappings. Can you imagine having your daughter’s image spread throughout the world as the face of sexual trafficking? These girls have never been abducted, never been sexually trafficked. [...] I know these girls. I know these families, and they would be really upset to see their daughters’ faces spread across the world and made the face of a terrible situation.

It remains to be seen whether social media and world involvement can help the Nigerian people recover from a deadly, complex situation. The alternative may be another opportunity for American empire building and global destabilization in oil-rich Nigeria.

More Links:

For more sensible updates on Nigeria, follow sources quoted in this article on Twitter: @tejucole & @zeynep. Also, Jumoke Balogun of @CompareAfrique recommends following local journalists @ChiomaChuka@gbengasesan, and @obyezeks.

Photo by musyani75 released under a Creative Commons license.