On August 26, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden Honda into the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, killing 23 people and injuring 81 more. Boko Haram, a shadowy radical Islamic movement that has been waging daily attacks in the north of the country, claimed responsibility. Some have argued that the sophisticated tactics are evidence of Boko Haram establishing links with international terrorist networks, most likely al Qaeda in the Maghreb or al Shabab in Somalia. Even before this attack, the United States, Britain, and Israel had publicly supported providing counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government. Now, momentum for such a solution is growing.

But such an approach could do more harm than good -- for Nigeria but also for Washington, which cannot afford to alienate Africa's largest Muslim population. Since his election to the Nigerian presidency in April 2011, Goodluck Jonathan has undertaken an exclusively security-driven strategy for dealing with Boko Haram, stationing large numbers of military and police in the north, especially in Maiduguri, a city on the edge of the Sahara near the border with Chad, and the states of Bauchi and Borno. Although the military and police are made up of various ethnic, religious, and regional groups, few are native to the areas in which they serve and can be hostile to the local populations. For example, following a bombing in Maiduguri, Amnesty International reported that the Nigerian military "responded by shooting and killing a number of people, apparently at random, before burning down the market." That significant numbers of people have fled the area adds credibility to such accusations, as does the fact that some local leaders are calling for a reduction of the military and police presence in their communities.

Instead of associating itself with Abuja's heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram's popular support.

Indeed, it is misleading to think of Boko Haram as an organized terrorist group or a conventional insurrection. Even its name -- commonly translated as "Western education is forbidden" -- implies more organization than appears to exist and is used only by outsiders, such as the police and media. In fact, Boko Haram more resembles a cloud of inchoate rage shaped by Islam. It has no central leadership, and its attacks appear to have been uncoordinated. This structure may change: Since mid-June, Boko Haram has maintained a blog that purports to represent the "organization." But the site has not been updated for more than a month.

The movement's rhetoric -- used by alleged spokesmen in contact with the English-speaking press, imams and malams preaching in Hausa on the street and in mosques, and anonymous pamphlets and posters -- draws on a long-standing local tradition of Islamic radical reform that emphasizes the pursuit of justice for the poor through the imposition of sharia. Adherents generally despise Nigeria's secular leadership and the country's traditional Muslim elites, whom they see as having been co-opted by the government. Thus, Boko Haram recently murdered the brother of the Shehu of Borno, the preeminent Islamic traditional ruler in Maiduguri, as well as a number of local government officials.

Boko Haram emerged from this tradition and an inward-looking community of extremists led by a young, charismatic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, whose followers were centered in Maiduguri. In 2009, Yusuf led a bloody insurrection there that the secular authorities suppressed with difficulty. What triggered the violence remains obscure, although it has been connected to a dispute over wearing motorcycle helmets. In its immediate aftermath, Yusuf, his father-in-law, and a few other close associates were brazenly murdered by the police, providing the movement with its martyrs. Boko Haram subsequently went underground and regrouped. Since Yusuf's death, however, no leadership has publicly surfaced.

The goals of Boko Haram's adherents range from the release of their sympathizers from prison and the enforcement of sharia in areas where it is already formally in place to the establishment of God's kingdom on earth and the destruction of the secular state, to be replaced by an Islamic one. Until the attack on the UN building, Boko Haram had waged its battle locally, primarily targeting facilities and personnel deemed un-Islamic or complicit with the Nigerian federal government, such as army barracks, police checkpoints, beer halls, brothels, local and federal officials, and in a few cases, churches and Christian clergy.

Since Nigeria's national elections in April, Boko Haram attacks have escalated and grown more sophisticated, drawing on masses of unemployed youths. More than 70 violent incidents have been documented since late May. There is a widespread belief in the north that Jonathan rigged the election and stole his victory from the northern Muslim candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Following the announcement of the election results, mobs in the north killed an estimated 800 people in three days. The houses of traditional Islamic rulers believed to have supported Jonathan were burned down.

Instead of relieving pressure by offering northerners positions in his inner circle, Jonathan surrounded himself primarily with members of his own Ijaw ethnic group and others from his southern home state of Bayelsa and the Niger Delta. His recent attempt, now abandoned, to lengthen presidential term limits from four to six years and his support of the constitutionally ambiguous decision by the National Judicial Council to remove the president of the court of appeals, who was presiding over petitions challenging the results of the 2011 elections, have further alienated the north.

Jonathan needs to address this northern alienation, of which Boko Haram is only a symptom. Washington should also urge him to challenge the corruption that pervades much of Nigerian government and society, which would go a long way toward soothing the genuine political and economic grievances that motivate Boko Haram's violence and fuel its popular support.

There are concrete ways the United States can aid that process. If Jonathan demonstrated a genuine commitment to military and police reform, for example, the United States could provide much-needed training in improving relations with the civilian population. It could also support Nigerian strategies to make modern education more palatable to an Islamic population. There are already successful examples of state governors in the north financially supporting madrasahs (Islamic schools) in return for the introduction of modern science in the curriculum. 

If Jonathan balks, the United States should strengthen its ties with the north by expanding soft diplomatic initiatives, beginning with the establishment of a consulate in Kano. The consulate could then facilitate exchanges between American and Nigerian academics, especially Islamic scholars, and accelerate an existing U.S.-supported program of cataloging and preserving ancient Islamic manuscripts, a proven tactic for affirming the international importance of northern Islamic culture. Such steps would counter the widely held view in the north that the United States is anti-Islamic.

Even if Boko Haram expand its operations and establish significant contacts with international terrorist organizations, the Obama administration should not let counterterrorism considerations trump these public diplomacy strategies. Too heavy a hand would risk alienating Nigeria's 75 million Muslims, who already have legitimate grievances in the north. This, in turn, could undermine the very unity of Nigeria -- something neither Washington nor Abuja can afford.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOHN CAMPBELL, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is the Ralph Bunch Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By John Campbell