Nigerian Terrorist Group Accused Of Killing Students

Renee Montagne talks with former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell about recent school attacks in Nigeria. The group believed to be behind them is called Boko Haram. Campbell is Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's a very different kind of rebellion going on in northern Nigeria. It involves a movement that's been dubbed Boko Haram, which translates to: Western education is a sin. And it's often waged a deadly war against schools. Last weekend, gunmen attacked a bordering school. In a predawn raid, they doused a dormitory with fuel, set it on fire and shot students trying to flee. Forty-two students and teachers died. Authorities blame that and other attacks on the radical Islamists of Boko Haram.

To learn more, we turned to John Campbell. He was U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Thanks very much for joining us.

JOHN CAMPBELL: Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Let's start, really, at the beginning with this group. What is Boko Haram, and what is the group's primary goal?

CAMPBELL: We need to start with the fact that Boko Haram is an outsider label. It's the label that is applied to the movement by the Nigerian government and by the Nigerian media. They don't call themselves that. What they are is a radical Islamic movement that looks to the establishment of an Islamic state. A very important point, though, is we are talking about a very loose and diffuse movement. So we're talking about something that is difficult, essentially, to get a handle on.

MONTAGNE: Are you talking then, about cells, or are you talking about groups that really have no connection with each other, but share a belief system, all of whom are attacking similar targets? These attacks on schools have become a regular horrifying event.

CAMPBELL: That's right. And I would say it's essentially all of the above. There seem to be multiple groups that, while they share the same goals, do not necessarily coordinate or cooperate closely with each other. And a particular focus is the Nigerian government. All of them tend to kill police whenever they can, kill military whenever they can, blow up government installations whenever they can. They see the federal government as fundamentally evil.

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering, then, if, when in recent months, Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, imposed a state of emergency in northern Nigeria and then mounted an offensive against this very loose group I would think a little bit hard to go after, that this offensive might have turned more people away from the government than helped the situation.

CAMPBELL: A number of civil rights organizations make exactly that argument. The argument is that the security services - by using very crude tactics - have, in fact, alienated part of the population.

MONTAGNE: Well, if, as you've described it, this movement is pretty well focused on Nigeria itself. How worried should the U.S. be about this movement in Nigeria, and how worried should it be that about the spread of Islamist militancy in the region?

CAMPBELL: Nigeria has 175 million people. It's by far the biggest country in Africa. It has cooperated with us on a whole host of security issues, and it's been an important source of oil. In other words, Nigeria has been a very good friend of the U.S., and Boko Haram is a direct threat to the Nigerian government. So we should be worried about it from that perspective. Should we be worried about Boko Haram attacking the United States? No, not really. But the situation is highly dynamic. Boko Haram could evolve into a movement with important international jihadist links, and that possibility should be a matter of concern for policymakers.

MONTAGNE: Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much for joining us.

CAMPBELL: Thank you so much for having me.

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