Ordered Liberty

Confusion on Boko Haram and Terrorism

For admirers of George Will and Charles Krauthammer, it’s a real treat to find them together many nights on Bret Baier’s panel on Special Report. But I must confess to nearly falling out of my chair upon watching the replay of a segment last night in which Mr. Will opined that Boko Haram seemed to him more like “a military insurgency” than a terrorist organization. Dr. K vigorously refuted this assertion and was right to do so.

At issue was the State Department’s failure, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary, to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. I sympathize with Will’s (very) general premise that “terrorist” is an overused term. But the premise was inapposite in this case.

Terrorism is the use and threatened use of mass violence in violation of the laws of war in order to coerce a government or society into policy changes or the acceptance of some ideological agenda. It does indeed trivialize the term to apply it to people who do not commit terrorism, whether they are serious criminals (e.g., mafia hit-men or serial murderers) or, as is fashionable on the Left, to people who merely represent things with which one disagrees (e.g., energy-producers, “the one percent,” or the Tea Party). It is not wrong, however, to refer to terrorists as terrorists—it’s entirely accurate.

Will said he sees terrorism as “random” violence, while Boko Haram seemed to him more like a military insurgency against the Nigerian government. Since Boko Haram has what Will sees as “military objectives,” that somehow suggests to him that its violent attacks are more like lawful combat operations than terrorism. It is tough to unwind all he gets wrong here (though Krauthammer did a very good job of it).

A terrorist organization is distinguished from a militia by its failure to comply with the laws and customs of war—particularly, its intentional targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Al Qaeda has military objectives, too; so does every terrorist organization. The fact that a terrorist organization has “military objectives” is beside the point if it pursues those objectives through mass-murder attacks in conjunction other operations distinguished by their extreme cruelty—like brutally murdering scores of school boys and turning young girls into sex slaves, as Boko Haram does.

I assume that by “random” attacks, Will means that terrorists terrorize by creating an atmosphere of intimidation in which anyone could be attacked at any time. Military insurgencies, by contrast, conduct more regular, predictable attacks, concentrating on targets that have military value (even if hitting them causes collateral damage to civilians). If that’s how he sees it, one has to assume that he simply does not know much about Boko Haram. Its attacks are as random as any other terrorist organization’s. There are more of them, but that is because Boko Haram is a particularly vicious group, not because it is fighting a traditional battlefield campaign. And while it attacks government targets (just like al Qaeda has attacked the Pentagon, U.S. embassies, and U.S. military installations), Boko Haram routinely targets civilian centers, school children, churches, and other Western targets that could only be considered “military objectives” by a violent jihadist who sees non-Muslims as “at war with Islam.”

Moreover, as Bret Baier pointed out, Tom Joscelyn has outlined long-standing ties between Boko Haram and al Qaeda. (Tom’s latest on that, in the Weekly Standard, is here.) Will appears to be under the misimpression (one the State Department promotes) that Boko Haram is not part of the global jihad but is simply waging a local war for political control of Nigeria. But this canard elevates what progressives want to believe about Boko Haram (and radical Islam generally) over the reality of how these groups define themselves.

Boko Haram’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “People (or The Group) Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad.” The short handle Boko Haram reflects a part of this overarching Islamic supremacist mission: “Western education is forbidden.” (Note the wishful thinking of progressives repeatedly peddled over the past few days: Boko Haram, we’re told, is not an Islamist group; they are just a backward-thinking political group opposed to education. In fact, what they oppose is Western education; they are all for Islamic education because they are an avowedly Islamist group.)

Boko Haram’s explicit goal is the imposition of sharia law, first in Nigeria (because that’s where they are) but ultimately worldwide. Even then-Secretary Clinton, despite failing to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, acknowledged in congressional testimony that Boko Haram shared al Qaeda’s “jihadist” ideology (see the clip Bret played last night—jihadist is the word Clinton used … no doubt because the Obama administration was being criticized at the time for suppressing it). This jihadist ideology does not recognize national borders, so it is foolish to portray it as content to wage local wars for political control of this country or that. It sees the world as Dar al-Harb (the realm of war) versus Dar al-Islam, in which the latter must conquer the former. In fact, as I noted here at Ordered Liberty a few days ago—citing Tom Joscelyn’s Long War Journal partner, Bill Roggio—Boko Haram’s leader, Abubaker Shekau, explicitly threatened the United States (in sympathy with al Qaeda) in 2010: “Do not think jihad is over. Rather, jihad has just begun. America, die with your fury.” Like al Qaeda, Boko Haram sees itself as at war with the West and non-Muslims generally, not just with the Nigerian government.

I will be presumptuous again regarding what George Will may be thinking because I have expressed a similar frustration for many years. I’ve always objected to the term “War on Terror.” My problem with it is not just that “terrorism” is a tactic rather than an identifiable group of people, and therefore that the term “War on Terror” conveys a reluctance to name the enemy we are fighting against. It is also that the imprecision of the term “War on Terror” easily lends itself to mission creep: You start out fighting jihadists who mass-murdered Americans and the next thing you know you’re in a (now) thirteen-year-old futile experiment to bring Western democracy to sharia societies—a mission that very few Americans would have supported using our troops for but one that slipstreamed behind the effort to fight “terror.” After a while, under the same spell of political correctness that produced the term “War on Terror” in the first place, the government is institutionalizing procedures that undermine liberty under the guise of combatting “terror”—e.g., intrusive, non-particularized, unreasonable searches of everyone who wants to get on a plane or enter a building, 99.999 percent of whom clearly pose no threat to anyone.

If what George Will is saying is that we should be clear in what we mean by “terrorism” so that we have an accurate understanding of who the real enemy is, he is right. But you do not advance your understanding, or your security, by failing to call real terrorists terrorists. Boko Haram jihadists are real terrorists and their organization should have been designated as a terrorist organization several many years ago.