What Do We Do About Boko Haram?

The extremist group affiliated with al Qaeda and ISIS operating in Nigeria has launched violent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and shows no signs of stopping.

Ever heard of Boko Haram? It’s okay and not surprising if you haven’t; they operate in Nigeria, a nation in Africa, on a continent not often in the news and relegated for decades — if not centuries — to the hinterland subconscious of our public, social, and political discourse. Let’s be absolutely honest Westerners; we just don’t give much of a damn about sub-Saharan Africa. But perhaps we should start.

Why? Because Boko Haram, a violent Nigerian Islamist movement, has grown increasingly active and deadly in attacks against state and civilian targets in recent years. The group’s April, 2014, kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls drew particular international attention, including from the Obama Administration and Congress. Victims of previous abductions have reportedly been forced to convert to Islam and have been used as sex slaves by Boko Haram fighters. Its high death toll and its pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015 have further raised the concern of U.S. policy makers. The group has affiliated itself with ISIS — calling itself “Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP),” — though it remains better known by its original nickname. The State Department has named several individuals linked to Boko Haram as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, and the group was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department in November 2013.

It’s time for a new policy of addressing Boko Haram’s attacks and other terrorist actions in Nigeria and neighboring countries. At its extreme end, this policy should take a “realist” approach to the issue, realizing the concept of “self-defense” in the U.N. Charter has seen significant expansion post 9/11, and recognizing that certain precedents for the use of kinetic military force have already been employed in certain situations against terrorist organizations, and this existing template can be applied to Boko Haram.


The Status of International Law with Respect to Combating Terrorist and Extremist Organizations

When one considers the employment of air power against terrorists and their organizations, multiple recent examples abound. In 1986, President Reagan launched Operation El Dorado Canyon in response to recent terrorist attacks sponsored by Libya, one of which killed an American soldier. Although condemned by many other governments as a violation of international law, the U.S. based its authority to launch the attacks on the inherent right of self-defense listed in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This action did not result in any significant sanctions for the United States, and the same legal basis would be used in ensuing years, while the means employed became arguably more surgical.

For instance, after the Clinton administration discovered that Iraq had plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. launched cruise missiles against Iraqi intelligence facilities. Likewise, in 1998, the U.S. launched cruise missiles into Sudan in response to al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in east Africa. Once again, the U.S. based these cruise missile launches on the right of self-defense listed in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

The final, recent example of the use of air power to strike international terrorists is the United States’ relatively recent employment of drone strikes in lieu of traditional aircraft strike missions or troops on the ground. The legality of the use of each of these airpower assets flows from the same general set of international law principles. Indeed, in the years following the 9/11 attacks, the concept of “self defense” has significantly expanded with regard to international terrorist groups. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368, adopted within days of 9/11, recognized the inherent right of individual or “collective” self-defense at a time when no one was arguing that al-Qaeda was acting on behalf of a specific state; they were a non-state actor. Boko Haram is also a non-state actor.

It is widely accepted internationally that a nation may use lethal force to defend itself against imminent threats to its citizens and its security. It may do so without a formal congressional declaration of war, without a congressional authorization for the use of military force, and without the existence of an armed conflict recognized under international law. This general principle applies regardless of the weapon system used.

In the terrorism context, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) on September, 14, 2001, in order “to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States” by any person, organization, or nation that the President determines to have “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the September 11 attacks. To achieve that end, the President may “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons.” Congress attached no temporal or geographic limitations to its authorization, meaning the U.S can strike terrorists or terrorist organizations anywhere in the world.

Although there has been widespread criticism of drone strikes, the U.S. has expanded their use on terrorists in recent years beyond the borders of Afghanistan; drone strikes have been carried out recently in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And even more recently, air strikes have targeted ISIS and its affiliates in Syria, killing ISIS leaders. Accordingly, the U.S. extension of its drone program to areas outside Afghanistan where terrorists are operating can be applied to other extremist and terrorist groups.

Why Boko Haram Falls Within the Ambit of These International Law Principles

Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). The U.S. has named specific individuals linked to Boko Haram as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, and the State Department designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in November 2013. These facts lead to legal consequences under international law, which in turn opens a door for different types of U.S. military action against individuals and the organization as a whole.

In this regard, Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance is analogous to an “oath of bayat,” a similar pledge of allegiance many members of al Qaeda made to Osama bin Laden, which in some legal cases brought those persons within the ambit of the AUMF issued on 18 September, 2001. This legal structure is relevant to what actions may be taken against members of Boko Haram, because in its formative years, the group built ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As a result, the U.S. can treat Boko Haram the same way it treats al-Qaeda and ISIS.

How International Law Might Inform a New Policy and Strategy Against Boko Haram

Accordingly, the United States should apply this well-developed air power strategy and legal jurisprudence in the realm of national security — military action, drone strikes, and even indefinite detention if necessary — in order to combat Boko Haram. In fact, we have already taken the step of deploying surveillance drones to Cameroon. According to observers, these surveillance drones are “offering real-time observation of the movements of these fighters.” Conducting actual strikes would just be a continuation of existing policy and a “ramping up” of force.

Although based in Nigeria, Boko Haram fighters have staged attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The U.S. should reach out to these allied stakeholders and engage them to cooperate in this new strategy. Much like we did after 9/11 in some of the former Soviet republics, we should offer to stage military assets in those nations to launch attacks and/or strikes across the border to capture or destroy members of Boko Haram. For instance, the U.S. used bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to conduct operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And if these governments do not want the U.S. actually participating directly in missions, there is a different template that can be employed, one detailed by Mark Bowden in his bestselling book, Killing Pablo: The U.S. can supply intelligence and special forces assets to provide assistance to the Nigerian government in locating Boko Haram forces, and the local police forces and armies can perform the missions.

Although there are clearly differences between those operations and the proposed strategy against Boko Haram, these are nevertheless templates that should be considered to combat Boko Haram.


As with any strategy, air power is not the one-stop, cure-all. There are areas of this proposed strategy that invite the cooperative and coercive employment of airpower, and there are other areas where airpower’s employment must necessarily be constrained. As stated, this strategy invites the cooperative and coercive employment of airpower, specifically, drone strikes against individual targets or targets where Boko Haram fighters are clustered together. As stated, the U.S. has used drone strikes against terrorists in other places and in similar situations, such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and against ISIS in Syria.

On the other hand, there are more sensitive and nuanced areas for cooperation where air power simply doesn’t fit and could be counterproductive. For instance, the State Department listed a number of areas where the Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram has been hampered, including a lack of cooperation between security agencies, corruption, misallocation of resources, the slow pace of the justice system, and a lack of sufficient training for prosecutors and judges. Air power’s ability to address these issues with Nigeria’s government and judicial system is by definition constrained, but other cooperative means can address this issue.

For instance, the United States has long employed training programs for foreign judges and prosecutors and provided assistance in setting up judicial systems that follow the Western “due process” and “rule of law” model. The Department of Justice uses its Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT) to send career federal prosecutors to specific nations to perform this training and advisory mission. And the Department of Defense has the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS), based in Newport, Rhode Island, that routinely holds resident courses for foreign judges and prosecutors and also sends training teams to other nations to train military and civilian prosecutors and judges.

This already existing cooperation template can used as a part of the proposed policy with respect to Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, and can address some of the problems the State Department identified. A robust judicial system based on due process and the rule of law can appropriately charge and prosecute members of Boko Haram who commit terrorist acts and other crime, such as kidnappings and sex trafficking, as well as any governmental law enforcement or military personnel who commit human rights abuses that rise to the level of criminal conduct. A robust legal process on the ground can serve to compliment the use of air power to target members of the Boko Haram and the organization as a whole when international legal principles authorize it. This multi-pronged strategy can serve to ameliorate the recent problems caused by Boko Haram.


The extremist group Boko Haram has caused significant problems in Nigeria and the surrounding region. It has carried out attacks and kidnappings that fit the definition of terrorist acts conducted by other recognized terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, and it has affiliated itself with both of these groups. The United States has formally recognized al-Qaeda and ISIS as terrorist organizations, and there is no reason to treat Boko Haram any differently. The U.S. already has a strategy in place for responding to these groups, a model that is based on international law and which has been employed without significant international criticism or injury to U.S. interests.

Although every air power strategy employed has the possibility to incur collateral damage and casualties — as has been seen with drone strikes in some instances — prior policy in the use of air strikes including drones has been successful in killing terrorists and breaking up their operations. Accordingly, the United States should strongly consider increasing present assistance to Nigeria and other countries in the region, by employing the surgical use of air strikes including drones in order to deter, degrade, and eventually destroy Boko Haram.



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Glen Hines

Glen Hines


Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.