Why America’s Trillion-Dollar War on Terrorism Couldn’t Defeat Boko Haram

Why America’s Trillion-Dollar War on Terrorism Couldn’t Defeat Boko Haram

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Why America’s Trillion-Dollar War on Terrorism Couldn’t Defeat Boko Haram

A new book emphasizes the perils of social media campaigns and the limits of military intervention in saving Nigeria’s Chibok children.

By Nosmot Gbadamosi, a features journalist covering West Africa.

Soldiers of the 7th Division of the Nigerian Army sit on the back of a Military Toyota Land Cruiser at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, on March 25, 2016. STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

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MAY 1, 2021, 6:00 AM

In April 2014, the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons was on a yacht cruising in the Caribbean when he tweeted about the 276 girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram from a secondary school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. The hashtag he copied lit a matchstick that inflamed the world. Politicians and celebrities followed suit and shared the viral campaign, #BringBackOurGirls.


It was perhaps the first time a single hashtag had driven a multilateral military intervention. Yet the combined intelligence capabilities of seven powerful nations—the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and Israel—failed to rescue any of the kidnapped schoolchildren and couldn’t defeat the terrorist group hiding in a forest.


Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, Harper, 432 pp., $28.99, March 2021

The failings of this global intervention led to a number of fatal miscalculations, argue the Wall Street Journal correspondents Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw in their new book, Bring Back Our Girls. What’s more, the fame brought about by the social media campaign kept the girls in captivity for even longer and the mistrust between the U.S. and Nigerian governments delayed action on vital information sharing.


For instance, the authors found that a Nigerian military airstrike aided by U.S. drones had accidentally bombed some of the kidnapped girls, killing at least 10. It wasn’t reported to senior officials in Washington despite a grim Boko Haram video circulating online of the dead bodies.


U.S. intelligence officers listened to intercepted calls in languages they couldn’t translate but didn’t share, not quite trusting the Nigerian government of Goodluck Jonathan with the information they’d found. Instead, the National Security Agency put out a highly unusual ad looking for Americans who spoke Kanuri, a dialect spoken in Nigeria and throughout the region.


At one point, when two girls managed to flee, the “fame meant to free them had also made it harder for them to escape,” the authors write. Boko Haram sympathizers in the first village they came across recognized the schoolgirls and promptly handed them back to their captors, largely due to their sense of loyalty toward the terrorists, who had provided basic needs for villagers when government authorities had historically failed to do.


By the time Nigerian soldiers pushed into the vast Sambisa forest, in northeastern Nigeria, the Chibok girls were already living openly in Boko Haram-held towns.


By 2017, Washington found itself bound to an anti-terrorism war it wasn’t winning in the region. Insurgencies led by Boko Haram had grown, bringing horrific scenes of churches and mosques being bombed, and of children used as suicide bombers against their own communities, covered by the world’s media.


So what did foreign governments get so wrong in the effort to take down Boko Haram and bring the schoolchildren back home? Parkinson and Hinshaw’s account begins at the White House with that infamous tweet by then-first lady Michelle Obam