Boko Haram is turning into the next Islamic State

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Image: AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga
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ISIL, also known as ISIS or The Islamic State, shocked the world when it swiftly occupied a huge chunk of Iraq and Syria last year and brought about a continuing series of airstrikes by a US-led international coalition.

Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency movement in Nigeria, achieved notoriety when it kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok, sparking the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. But since then, the group has disappeared off the radar of most of the Western world. This is a mistake, as there are all the signs that Boko Haram could be the next ISIL.

The size of its territory is terrifying

Boko Haram now controls around 20,000 square miles (52,000 sq km), an area the size of Costa Rica, with its latest victory coming at a small town on Lake Chad earlier this week.

That amounts to a territory stretching “from the Mandara Mountains on the eastern border with Cameroon to Lake Chad in the north and the Yedseram river in the west” that includes 11 government provinces and 1.7 million people. At least 850,000 people have been displaced by the violence in the worst-hit three northeastern states, according to the UN.

Andrew Pocock, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, told the Telegraph:

There is a copy-cat element at work here. If ISIL can declare a Caliphate, then so can we. Boko Haram want to be seen by their peers as grown-up jihadis. They want to show ‘we can control territory, we can control a Caliphate’.

The Nigerian jihadists still have a ways to go before they can make the sheer scale of ISIL’s territory. The biggest city it controls, Mosul in Iraq, alone has more than 2 million people.

Boko Haram is getting more brazen

ISIL shocked everyone with its medieval form of strict Islam—with brutal beheadings of captured hostages and even children, as well as daily atrocities such as whippings of 40 lashes and fines (paywall) for shopkeepers who stay open during the call to prayer.

Boko Haram is getting more extreme itself. This week, the group used a 10-year-old girl as a suicide bomber. ”I doubt much if she actually knew what was strapped to her body,” one observer told AFP. The group has been using young women and children more and more.

Last week, the group committed its worst massacre yet, killing as many as 2,000 people in Baga. Most of the victims were reportedly children, women and elderly people who “could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents,” The Guardian reported. Civilians gave up on trying to count all the bodies.

Not enough people are paying attention

The massacre mentioned above barely made a ripple in the international media:

The schoolgirls were kidnapped eight months ago and are still missing. No military action or diplomatic maneuvering was enacted by the international community—the same community that in that period launched airstrikes against ISIL, brought sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea. The leader of Boko Haram openly mocked the campaign. “Bring back our girls?”Abubakar Shekau snorted. “Bring back our army!” He has said the girls have been sold into slavery.

ISIL sprang from the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq, which morphed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to the proto-caliphate that operates today. Airstrikes alone are not eliminating ISIL, which remains quite deadly and, more terrifyingly, an ever-more entrenched part of daily life in the area it controls. It has a government, administers law and justice, and is even launching its own currency.

If Boko Haram is left to fester, by the time it becomes a big enough threat to interest the international community it will be very hard to stop.