Of terrorism’s many destructive traits, none is more horrifying than its ability to unexpectedly snatch our normalcy from us. Recent attacks in Paris force us into somber, hug-your-loved-ones reflections: imagining the romantic, joyful energy of that city and its inhabitants suddenly shattered by the wholesale violence of others. That cruelty always unwraps the pure evil of such acts, since innocents have nothing to do with the political agendas of combatants. We’re saddened by the senseless loss of life in Paris, but we’re also angered by the intentional, vicious robbing of human lives.
Even as that sorrow connects us, media coverage of the event and mainstream discussion rip us further apart through selective focus. Paris, tragically, isn’t alone. After more than six months of presidential campaigning, months more of public anxiety over the Islamic State group’s spread and six combined primary debates … not one mention of the vicious spread of jihad in places like West Africa and how it’s inextricably linked with the crisis worldwide. More than a thousand people, as The Root has covered in recent weeks, have been massacred by suicide bombers in Nigeria since the election of its new president in February and alignment of the group once known as Boko Haram with the Islamic State.
Few dare rope that race elephant in the room and admit that media racism—whether intentional or not—can factor into newsroom decisions. But it’s an appropriate moment to remind a larger media-industrial complex that Islamic State-backed terror in Africa is of equal strategic value to what just happened in Paris. In fact, Boko Haram has just surpassed the Islamic State as the deadliest, most violent terror group worldwide.
But black lives in faraway places just don’t hold as much weight as European lives across the Atlantic pond. There shouldn’t be a difference: After all, like President Barack Obama just said “it’s an attack on all of humanity.”
But he was talking about Paris.
Even the black president can’t shake the internalization—even if, to his credit, he’s already posted several hundred U.S. troops and drone bases in West Africa as a response to rising armed Islamist fronts there. Still, we’re all afflicted with it. When’s the last time your local urban drive-time show sent shoutouts and prayers to black Diaspora terror victims?
It’s an important issue, even as we mourn the loss of life in Paris: What’s the difference between that act in France last Friday night and the scores of deadly attacks by the same group in Nigeria over a stretch of months?
Not much, since ISIS (as everyone is calling it) has spread beyond the Iraq-Syria battle space and into sub-Saharan Africa through the spread of its modern franchise. So, contrary to popular notions about the conflict, the Islamic State is not just confined to the “Middle East and North Africa.” And when it hits, it’s not just in Europe.
When Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in the spring, rebranding itself as the “Islamic State’s West Africa Province” or “Iswap,” the world should have paid closer attention. Bad enough that the Islamic State has gained a foothold in a shaky Middle East. It could get even worse if it gets its apocalyptic hands on a continent full of untapped lucrative resources and barely functional governments with no rule of law.
Despite his tough stance and some optimistic internal reports of late, there have been more than 1,420 officially tallied deaths from Boko Haram attacks since President Muhammadu Buhari took office in February, most concentrated in heavily impoverished and Muslim northern Nigeria. Some 170 deaths occurred in the month of October alone.
In 2014 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project counted more than 6,300 deaths from Boko Haram attacks, concluding that the terror group was responsible for up to half of all civilian casualties in African war zones. Just this year, in January, more than 2,000 Nigerian civilians were slaughtered in one day of unmitigated violence in the border town of Baga.
And, as The Root reported two weeks ago, new data reveal that Boko Haram has deployed the highest number of female suicide bombers (mostly preteen to teenage girls) of any terrorist group in history.
Islamic State aside for a minute, terror attacks have been rising in Eastern African countries like Kenya, where al-Shabab has unleashed unthinkable broad-daylight violence in crowded suburban shopping malls and college campuses. There have been more than 500 terror-related deaths in Kenya since 2011, including the more recent campus attack that left 147 dead. The Nairobi, Kenya, Westgate mall incident caught mainstream-media-outlet attention only because 1) geographically ignorant American audiences seemed stunned that modern malls and a middle class existed in Africa and 2) there was a fear that American shopping centers were on the terrorist hit list. There was little conversation about global sympathy for Africa’s terror victims and more, “Oh, no, they’re coming after Mall of America next!”
Yet the comparison of outrage over France versus Nigeria stems from basic observation that it’s the exact-same geo-terror chain committing the same acts. The difference: When the Islamic State makes a bloodstained statement in Paris, it gets nonstop, wall-to-wall coverage and immediate global sympathy; attacks by the Islamic State in West Africa, not so much. Post-Baga, Facebook wasn’t offering Nigerian green-and-white boilerplates, and there weren’t mounting piles of condolence wreaths outside the embattled country’s embassy in Washington.
Nor will you hear presidential candidates yelling for “boots on the ground” in Western Africa. GOP contenders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were more interested in happily cutting off that part of the world over Ebola than they were in shutting down Islamic State-linked African jihadis who might have considered using it as a bioweapon.
Western news outlets, even liberal-leaning ones like MSNBC, are real selective in the tragedies they cover, as digital journalist Sarakshi Rai pointed out in a recent conversation with BBC’s Newsday: “Because throughout 2015, we’ve seen thousands of terror attacks across Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt.”
Rationalizing it as a matter of geographical marketing is one explanation: Everyone just knows Paris. It’s the most romantic city on the planet, stars vacation there and it’s where clothing lines are born. You can’t say that about African countries and capitals. Folks can barely point to Nigeria on a map, even if it is Africa’s most populous country and largest economy (much less a dusty border town like Baga). And France, once a globe-spanning colonial empire, is still a major military power with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and easily armed projection worldwide.
But none of the above should really matter. The Islamic State in France is just like the Islamic State in Nigeria, and we should pay attention because its mandate is world domination. The Islamic State in West Africa has made the type of gains that could destabilize the African continent’s largest economy and democratic state, an ugly scenario that could result in explosive ripple effects across that region and the world. Nigeria, while suffering from lower oil prices, is still a major global energy supplier and a major beacon of commerce in the global south.
There’s just no excuse for the oversight in this era of a thousand cable channels and countless news websites. It’s the same terrorist organization inflicting pain and carnage from Western Europe to West Africa. If we’re really trying to eradicate the Islamic State once and for all, you’d think we’d want to make sure it didn’t show up anywhere.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.