HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Boko Haram, ISIS, and How Media Reports Terrorism

On the morning of January 7th the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked in Paris, France.  Al-Queda in Yemen took responsibilities for these tragic attacks.  The media did not waste a second reporting the news of these attacks, I learned about the attacks while reading a sports/comedy blog.  Just about everyone became aware of the tragedy only minutes after it had happened.  It was a week after these attacks on Charlie Hebdo that I was listening to public radio and heard of another attack inspired by radical Islam.  These attacks took place between January 3rd and January 7th, just days before the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  The attacks took place in the remote town of Baga, Nigeria and resulted in the deaths of 2,000 innocent Nigerians.  The attacks were carried out by the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram.  I heard of these attacks in Nigeria about a week after they had occurred and I wondered how that could be.  Why did I instantly hear about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but it took a week for the media to report on the deaths of 2,000 Nigerians?  Furthermore how does Boko Haram compare to ISIS?

Boko Haram controls most of Northern Nigeria.  Northern Nigeria is very remote and is the poorest part of the country.  Lagos, Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest city, is in southern Nigeria.  When journalist and Lagos’ residence hear of violence in northern Nigeria they think of the stories as “banal” because violence is so common in the north, says Cedric Jourde, who is a West Africa expert in the school of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.  The problem doesn’t completely have to do with the people in southern Nigeria not caring about the violence.  According to Max Abrahms, a terrorist expert at Northeastern University in Boston, “people think of Boko Haram’s violence less as a terrorist campaign and more as a civil war, and when it’s seen as a civil war it tends to attract less international attention.”


The leader and caliph of Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau.

Boko Haram controls a part of Nigeria that is remote and very poor, so many Nigerians choose to not pay attention to it.  Along with that, internationally we view Boko Haram’s violence as civil war violence instead of terrorist acts.  These are two strong reasons why most people don’t know much about Boko Haram.  Politically there is also a reason why we don’t hear more about Boko Haram.  President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan is up for reelection on February 14th, and the last thing he would like in the press are articles about a powerful terrorist organization that is taking over half of Nigeria. goodluck-jonathan-election-poster

A poster of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

When I began researching this topic I started wonder how Boko Haram compared to ISIS since I had been hearing so much about ISIS in the news.  ISIS and Boko Haram do have differences, ISIS is an international organization, Boko Haram is not.  ISIS has military control over parts of two countries (Iraq and Syria), Boko Haram claims to have military control over northern Nigeria but it is not confirmed.  ISIS has about 12,000 fighters and Boko Haram only have 9,000.  And of course geographically they are very far apart.  However as Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi, editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines, puts it “ISIS and Boko Haram are two sides of the same coin”.  As Fahad al-Harthi explains “ignorance and a shallow understanding of religion can transform into something dangerous and sinister”.  Both ISIS and Boko Haram have taken the Islamic faith and turned it into something dangerous and sinister.


The ISIS flag on the top and the Boko Haram flag on the bottom showing how Boko Haram is starting to copy some of ISIS’s techniques.

What I learned from my research is that all Islamic terrorist groups are fundamentally the same, they are shallow people who have taken religion and through their ignorance have turned that religion into something extremely violent and dark.  Because all terrorism is fundamentally the same the media should cover all the terrorism in the world equally, instead of covering the story that is most appealing.  Terrorism in Paris is just as tragic as terrorism in remote parts of Nigeria.  The media should take note of that and begin reporting equally.

-Arden Pabst




  1. amiteichenbaum says:

    I think that the general public view and understanding of Boko Haram is that it is a terrorist group, specifically after all of the media from the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, and the subsequent #bringbackourgirls twitter campaign (which was incredibly widespread and popular).

    I wouldn’t say that the lack of coverage is due to the idea that these actions are part of a civil war. I think the main reason is that the media lacks interest in that part of the world (especially lack of economic interest). We have to keep in mind that our media is run by a select group as well, who run media in order to make a profit, not to educate the public (

    These attacks, while horrendous, do not affect (speaking for Americans) our day-to-day lives (the attacks are not in global cities and are of no interest to public security). While this is a depressing thought, human altruism only extends so far when there is no money involved. Not to say that people don’t want to learn these stories, but those in charge of the media will not financially benefit from airing them (however, it is a thought that they are financially benefiting by not airing them due to Goodluck Jonathan’s personal political interests, but there is no evidence of this).

  2. dnicoloso3 says:

    A very informative piece. I had not previously known about Boko Haram, so thanks for bring it to my attention. I do have to disagree with your conclusion though. Although the deaths in Nigeria are equally tragic, it is not as significant to report on it because Nigeria is highly unstable, so these sorts of attacks are to be expected. France is a relatively stable country, so the attack was unusual. An attack of that sort, in an otherwise stable country, could indicate a shift in overall stability. This is significant because it could indicate a change in France, whereas it does not indicate anything in Nigeria. The two problems are not equal in their implications, so reporting is necessarily unequal.

  3. jjacob7 says:

    I think the US media’s coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks are markedly higher than that of the most recent Boko Haram attacks due to a combination of the reasons given above (political narrative, consequences for stability, and monied interests in media). Additionally, I would add the fact that the attacks in France represented a threat to free speech which remains a salient issue in much of the Western world and elsewhere, while the Boko Haram attacks seem more unrelatable for many in developed nations. Here’s a link to an article I read discussing a similar issue:

    • nsumi3 says:

      I think you bring up a great point: one of the reasons the Paris attacks were so broadly covered was their symbolic assault on free speech. To an extent, this also explains the explosion of coverage of the 200 kidnapped women victims of Boko Haram. This was a symbolic assault on women and women’s rights, something the United States in particular has struggled with over much of its history. Thus, the attacks were both easily digested by Western countries. The more tragic attacks the blog mentions, while more devastating, don’t carry the same emotional impact for people thousands of miles outside of the country. From this perspective, a coverage differential is understandable. I do find, though, the almost complete lack of coverage by major outlets of these Nigerian attacks disturbing.

  4. missypittard says:

    Few would dispute that there is inequality in news coverage of terrorist groups. While the driving factors are varied and numerous, I dissent with your call to action that media should adjust their coverage to equality. There is inequality in news coverage across the board, and bias along with it. Adjusting how media resources are spent is not only impractical, but also, without much purpose. Those with the means and ability to combat the issues at hand will be well aware of the situations regardless of media outlets.

  5. jackjenkins2015 says:

    I think I agree with you more than most of the people commenting here. Obviously the news is biased; it runs on its ability to sell and create fear. People are scared of terrorist attacks in a country like France because it means it could happen here. The news monopolizes that, and many sources like Fox News capitalized on that by reporting on that fear and making Paris seem like some terrifying military zone (there is actually a very funny video done by a Parisian parody news station that makes fun of the Fox News reportings).

    However, to everyone saying that the situation in Nigeria is not as serious, I believe it is quite worse. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo attacks were tragic. But Boko Haram is a military power that has been labeled by the US and many other countries as a terrorist organization and is devastating the people of West Africa. Over 1.5 million people have fled Nigeria, and thousands have been killed or taken hostage by their army. I think that the populace of the US should know more about this ongoing event that could have huge implications for West Africa.

  6. lalaninatl says:

    While I have previously heard of Boko Haram, like you said, I knew little about the attack and the situation in Nigeria. I also think that you make a valid point when you say that the media does focus its reports on rural areas, but it makes sense. There are less people there or from there, so there will be less people who care about that. If the same thing happened in Australia, I’m sure you’d here a lot more on it. What I think an interesting point to explore is if ISIS thinks of their acts a civil war.

  7. cryan3232 says:

    While equal coverage of all world events could be seen as ideal I do not think it is practical. The attack in Paris was in the news for longer because it occurred in a region that is not associated with turmoil. While it may not be right, news coverage will always favor something that is the most surprising to viewers. While I agree that terrorism is tragic no matter where is occurs, I do not think the media should try to change how they are reporting news. They are ultimately providing what people want to read and it is our demand as consumers that dictates the stories we see.

  8. khospedales3 says:

    I find it interesting how the Nigerian president can in a way turn a blind eye to Boko Haram and convince others to do the same in order to artificially strengthen his political power and public reception.

    Shoot, in this country, so much as a 20 cent increase in gas prices will have half the country scrutinizing the President’s every move. I can’t imagine the political turmoil we’d see if some rebel force made a presence in our country.

  9. cfundora says:

    Perhaps the reason why Boko Haram is getting less coverage is because the media has become desensitized to the daily acts of violence within the African region. Not to mention, its difficult for the media to pay attention if the Nigerian government is down-playing the situation. One could even speculate that there is less coverage regarding Boko Haram because the victims are Muslims, not from the West. Its unfortunate that the atrocities committed by BH are underreported because its not getting the attention it deserves from the international community.

  10. corypope6 says:

    Thanks for informing me about Boko Haram. Until now I had never heard of them. I do agree with you about how terrorism is still terrorism no matter where it occurs in the world, and should be reported. I also understand the other side of the argument, which is that northern Nigeria has very little, if any, impact on the daily lives of Americans. However, with as much as the media and the American people in general obsess about terrorism, Al-qaeda, etc. I would assume that the death of 2,000 people is a large enough issue that it should be discussed. 2,000 is roughly the number of U.S. soldiers that have been killed in Afghanistan, and we do not overlook that. The people responsible for these atrocities should answer to someone other than Allah, and it is our responsibility as informed people to do something about it.

  11. lmoghimi3 says:

    I did not know about Boko Haram either. This reminds me of how focused our news can be towards certain countries, especially those in Europe. We tend to forget about all of the other countries that are not as influential, but still need to be reported on.

  12. jkempa3 says:

    Recalling back the Bush administration, the US declare a global war on terror. This means all terrorism. It would be foolish to down play or underestimate the abilities and capabilities of any of these terrorist groups. With the speed that information can be passed today through the internet, phone calls and the like there is no excuse that the attack killing 2,000 Nigerians took so long to report. Realistically the reason it was not reported as quickly is because the country of interest, Nigeria, is not as large of a world player as France. This is not how it should be but, the news media like most entities is a business and is there to make money. This means they report what gets their ratings up so that they can generate more revenue.

  13. coreilly says:

    I like how you brought up a terrorist organization that is not as commonly known. I think it’s important to understand that ISIS and Al-Queda are not the only big time terrorist organizations in the world. I think you raise an important question, why do some terrorist attacks get more coverage than others? I think it has to do with geographical location. Africa is known for its constant civil wars, shifty borders, and poverty. Europe however is not. When a big time attack happens in a place like Paris, it’s a big deal because even though terrorist attacks are in no way a new thing in Paris bringing a hostage situation to the table makes an event that much more noticeable. Attacks in Africa, like you said, are always correlated with civil war or instability. It is seen as the world as almost a normal thing to be happening in that region. So I agree that maybe we focus on some attacks more than other, but in this case it is probably due to the uniqueness of the attack in Paris as opposed to the ‘common type’ attack in Africa.

  14. ashumway3 says:

    It’s extremely saddening that the killing of thousands of people in Africa can be written off as “common” and go largely unreported in our country. However, what I find even more disturbing is how it was poorly reported within their own country, solely for political reasons. I strongly believe that information and education are instrumental tools that we need to utilize more efficiently in order to raise public awareness about issues of terrorism and human rights abuses around the world. Our communication technologies are certainly developed enough to accomplish this, however issues such as safety concerns for journalists and political complications stand in the way of better reporting in these areas of political instability.

  15. vlobo3 says:

    I do agree with you that terrorism is terrorism. I also agree that it is not the greatest that it is not reported equally. However, I think something that you’re not taking into account is where this is taking place, and what it is like in these areas of the world. Unlike Nigeria, terrorist attacks do not happen all the time in France. It is very rare when they do, and so when it does happen, it is something huge for that country. For countries like Nigeria, if we reported everything that happened every day, we would be overwhelmed with what was going on in these regions. I know that that is really sad to say, especially because regardless of where people are being murdered they are still people, but it is the truth.

  16. trevormcelhenny says:

    I agree with your point that media coverage tends to focus more on topics that are appealing to western audiences, but as others have pointed out we (as an audience) have become desensitized to the violent and atrocious reports coming out of Africa. And as others have also commented, when something of this nature happens in a relatively stable and peaceful country, it is unexpected and will garner more attention.

    Saying that the media should report on terrorist events equally, while maybe ideal, just doesn’t “sell”. Media outlets thrive on new “hot” stories and telling their audiences what they want to hear, not necessarily what they need to hear. It’s the same reason there are countless reality television shows on every major network, and zero shows that, for instance, help you learn quantum mechanics. Media content is geared towards what the larger audience wants to hear and see. I’m not saying I agree with it, but that’s how it is.

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