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Genghis Khan Would Hate Twitter and 5 Other Thoughts on Boko Haram

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Earlier this year, the entire world became (rightfully) enraged when an obscure terrorist organization kidnapped approximately three hundred girls because they went to school.

Since we avoid “chasing the news”, we haven’t written about Boko Haram yet. But this story perfectly connects to many of the things we’ve been writing about recently. Without further ado, six (hopefully unique) thoughts:

1. The world is getting safer...because of technology. In other words, Genghis Khan would not like Twitter.

How many women did Genghis Khan and his army rape and kidnap? I’d guess it was over 300. But without a modern media/social media apparatus and travel technology, his crimes went unrevenged by Europe.

I tend to question most assertions about how the modern world is different than the world of the past, specifically generational biases. The exception to this rule is technology, which can create lasting change. And this crisis, like many others, proves that our interconnected world--both through data and travel--makes getting away with dastardly acts of violence much, much harder. The whole world can observe, judge and, eventually, destroy you.

And that’s exactly what happened to Boko Haram. Even ten years ago, this focus and outrage would not have been possible. (Remember the Second Congo War? No seriously, do you remember the civil war in Congo, because no one does despite the deaths of millions.) Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls and did a pretty good job (with an assist from the Nigerian government) of keeping it quiet. Still the world found out. Then the world turned their attention to their misdeeds and debated how to respond. They even got Americans to care about something that happened in sub-Saharan Africa, a region America often ignores.

At least for a few weeks...

2. Damn, we just cannot keep up with areas of the world where America will go to war.

We’ve been writing about this a lot recently, but how many countries (or stateless terror groups) does America have to fight? In a weird, not really accurate way, we can connect Boko Haram to the Global War on Terror, even though they had nothing to do with 9/11.

But that’s just one incident of at least three this year. Russia invaded Crimea, And then Nigeria became the focus. And when we wrote the first draft of this post, Iraq hadn’t descended into chaos yet again.

So we were going/not going to war in Ukraine, then Nigeria, and now Iraq, in the space of three months, and I haven’t even mentioned the civil war in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program. It feels like a bit much. Does America’s military really have to play a role in each of these conflicts?

3. Does this attention actually help Boko Haram?

At first glance, no. They pissed off America, and America is the boss. The world’s super cop. It’s Superman. I tuned into an episode of PRI’s The World mid-segment discussing Boko Haram, and I heard this:

Marco Werman: Could you argue that this attention could ultimately weaken Boko Haram?

Zeynep Tufekci: The attention within Nigeria and the condemnation could definitely weaken Boko Haram.   

Great, I thought, this focus could take this group down, as I just argued above. But then I heard the next part:

“...could be countered if {Boko Haram] get a new unpopular enemy that they can pretend they're fighting against, or that they can create this 'Oh, look, we're fighting the Great Satan…”

So, ethically, one could make the argument that to save Eastern Ukrainians, innocent Syrians, the Kurds, the Shiites in Iraq, and Nigerian civilians, America’s military must intervene and go to war in Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Nigeria…

Except that every time we do, there are unexpected consequences. Like elevating a terror group to the level of “super terrorists”...

4. Or as Marc Lynch puts it, America shouldn’t give this group primacy.

By going after Boko Haram, we’re legitimizing them on the global stage. We’re giving fanatical young Muslims a new, hipper terrorist group to join. (Though ISIS pushed Boko Haram off the stage pretty quickly.)

The best analogy, to explain this process, comes from Marc Lynch. When The Game attacked Jay-Z (the most powerful rapper in the country, or rap’s “hegemonic” power) Lynch counseled Jay-Z to ignore the attacks. At its best, it would give The Game legitimacy and publicity. For the full take, read the original article and its follow ups, but this snippet summarizes the point:

“My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.”

Can you think of any country (**cough** America **cough**) that needs this advice?

6. Not a trend, just a singular data point.

Well, it depends where you are looking. In Nigeria, the kidnapped girls probably do represent an increase in kidnappings and violence. However, finding accurate data is difficult. FiveThirtyEight received a lot of blowback from their article using media reports of kidnappings to chart the rise, because it failed to account for the growth of media in the country.

On a larger level, it is hard to connect this kidnapping to a larger trend of increasing violence in the world or violence against women. I mean, the world now holds global conferences condemning sexual violence in war, and it has even tried a war criminal (unsuccessfully) for allowing rape by his units. This kidnapping doesn’t represent a growing trend, just a single data point.

ten comments

“So we were going/not going to war in Ukraine, then Nigeria, and now Iraq, in the space of three months, and I haven’t even mentioned the civil war in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program. It feels like a bit much.”

Maybe in the long term the awakening to the fact that the USA do NOT keep peace in the world will weaken the myth about the USA doing exactly that?

I did once note that even though hundreds of thousands of U.S.Army ground forces personnel were effectively fixed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, none of the classic scenarios happened. All those wars which U.S.military power purportedly deters did not happen despite it being busy.
North Korea did not invade South Korea
China did attack nobody
Iran did attack nobody
Syria did attack nobody until it attacked itself
Libya did attack nobody until it attacked itself

And the one bad guy who did attack others – Russia – was neither deterred nor countered by U.S.military power in Georgia nor Crimea nor Eastern Ukraine.

Iraq – where the United States actually attacked – became decidedly LESS peaceful thereafter, and was not pacified even after a decade.

By now the story of the U.S. military as guarantee for world peace and stability is badly undermined, but hardly anyone appears to take notice.

Too many people’s paycheck depends on not seeing this, for a U.S.military that’s officially not keeping world peace would be much harder challenged to justify its own size and budget.

@ SO – “By now the story of the U.S. military as guarantee for world peace and stability is badly undermined, but hardly anyone appears to take notice.”

I’d argue that it’s worse than that. I think way too many people—especially pundits and straight new reporters—actively argue the opposite.

It’s going to be an ongoing topic, on here, over the next few months of how we can get people to assume a military intervention won’t work, instead of thinking that they will. Or worse, if we don’t do something, disaster looms.

There re a couple ways how to kill off the pro-war voices. It’s largely about the money.

A simple fix would be constitutional rule that violent military actions overseas automatically prevent a nominal rise of annual military spending unless a war was declared.

The world is safer because of twitter!? How many of those girls are back home because of twitter?

A lot of tech savvy Westerners feel better about themselves because of twitter but until twitter actually kills a few BH guys, dead-with the gun, that’s what the bullets are for-those BH guys will just laugh at twitter. Which come to think of it, is just what they do.

I think it a fine example of Western hipster narcissism to think that some kid with glorious visions of religiously justified homicidal mayhem and other assorted fun filled activities is more likely to join a group that promises to make these fantasies come true, like BH, because the Yanks dislike it. A thought such as “Hmm. I can join BH because it has now been legitimized upon the world stage whereas before it was beneath my notice.” isn’t likely to pass through the fevered minds of the young recruits. More likely is “This is great! I can kill people and Allah says it’s ok!”

I don’t know how obscure Boko Haram was in Nigeria, the only place it really counts, before the kidnappings. Not obscure at all I’ll wager. As for the rest of the world, until they show up with some infantrymen to kill BH members dead-with the gun, that’s what the bullets are for-who cares?

“The world is safer because of twitter!? How many of those girls are back home because of twitter?”

They clearly wrote about the deterrence effect of sunlight here, and anecdotal evidence for insufficient deterrence does not disprove the assumption that other actions were deterred.

A proper critique about causalities would have demanded evidence for deterrence effect in other cases.
Boko Haram isn’t so much a Muslim thing as a tribal thing. The Christianised south is very much urbanised, the Muslim north is almost entirely rural, has different climate, different customs, different economy, more historical influence from Arabs … it’s all different and thus not endeared with a Southern central government.
The conflict there isn’t so much a religious one as it is an ordinary ethnic one.
BTW, IIRC there was a historian’s estimate that Genghis Khan fathered 5,000 children with all the rapes he himself committed over time.
And then there are genetic research results. See link URL with my name, since I was again accused of spamming when I wrote it in here.

@ SO – Please watch the personal attacks. I edited your comment to cut the second paragraph.

Also, I’ve heard the stat about Genghis Kahn’s lineage. Fascinating stuff.

@ Carl – On the topic at hand, we weren’t talking about just Twitter, we were writing about “a modern media/social media apparatus and travel technology” that allows the world to shine a spotlight on people committing atrocities.

In your terms, the modern media apparatus makes it easier to identify evil people and “kill them-dead, with the gun that’s what the bullets are for”. And no, we don’t think twitter can kill people. We never wrote that, don’t think that.


If the Boko Haram guys say they are acting out of religious belief, I take them at their word. They speak for themselves and don’t need anybody to interpret for them, or they never asked anybody to that I know of.

Eric C:

Shining a spotlight can result in effective action being taken and when that happens it is good. But it seems to me that it is so easy to do something on social media that it degenerates into an instrument for making actions the primary goal of which is to make the twitterer feel good about themselves, something effective being done is beside the point. I get the feeling sometimes that a lot of people who engage in that kind of thing lose interest once they demo to the world how sensitive and concerned they are. In that sense I think it is actually harmful to effective action being taken.

It also seems to me that superficial expressions of concern, then off to the next party, allow them to dodge the reality of the thing. That reality isn’t very clean.

@ Carl – That’s a fair, nuanced point. It makes me think of that whole Kony meme, or the ALS challenge. People using social media, but probably not making a difference.

“If the Boko Haram guys say they are acting out of religious belief, I take them at their word.”

You buy into their propaganda.

And you are cherrypicking the propaganda that suits your feelings: I’m sure you didn’t buy the AQ propaganda that they were merely defending the Muslim world against the USA, right? Because that propaganda did not suit your feelings.
The social media bashing on such issues is pointless. Most people have negligible power, expressing their preference to those in power through “likes” and “retweets” is the most they can do.

No politician campaigns for office with the promise to intervene in case some horror stories surface in Africa during his term. The right to vote equals no power on such issues.