Can #BringBackOurGirls Stop Boko Haram?

Nigerians rightfully demand answers from their government. Photographer: Aminu Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images

"I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market." Once Nigerian militant Abubakar Shekau's outrageous boast made its way around the Web and the world this week, it was only a matter of time before the Web and the world's outrage focused on him and the movement he leads. The challenge now will be to ensure that foreign assistance in confronting the group, including from the U.S., does more good than harm.

Shekau is the leader of Boko Haram, which kidnapped 276 girls from their boarding school in Borno state three weeks ago. This was typical work for Boko Haram, a loose network of outlaws that favors Shariah rule in northeastern Nigeria. This week, it killed at least 310 people in the village of Gamboru Ngala; last September, it murdered 65 students in their sleep at an agricultural college.

But it was the seizure of the girls that awakened not only the world but also many Nigerians, leading to demands that the government of President Goodluck Jonathan finally take on the rebels effectively. Unfortunately, when the government has acted against Boko Haram, it has been with indiscriminate violence that has claimed almost as many innocent lives as the militants have.

Thus the demand, and the need, for international assistance. In theory, it could temper the excesses of the Nigerian response, and the technology and personnel -- the U.S. is providing satellite imagery, for example, and hostage negotiators -- could make the response more effective. On the other hand, if Nigerian officials continue their scorched-earth campaign, the U.S. and the U.K. will become accessories to it.

That could result in the widening of Boko Haram's focus. In its dozen years of existence, the network has not attacked any target outside of Nigeria. Boko Haram is a homegrown movement with a Nigerian agenda. Internationalizing the fight against it may likewise invite the group to internationalize its fight. It may also encourage jihadis in other countries to flock to northeastern Nigeria.

To mitigate those dangers, the U.S., the U.K., France, Canada and the other nations that have pledged assistance should be careful to limit it to rescuing the kidnapped students. Certainly, the U.S. should stick to its pledge to refrain from offering fighting forces. The Nigerians have a capable military that regularly contributes to peacekeeping missions elsewhere.

If all the international assistance helps to bring about a happy ending for the missing schoolgirls, so much the better. But Boko Haram's mayhem predates their abduction, and their rescue wouldn't mark the end of the group's violent ways. The group, which combines Salafists, nihilists and ordinary criminals, is fed by an environment in which poverty is pervasive and police brutality and corruption are rampant.

In other words, the fight against Boko Haram will continue long after the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has fallen into disuse. Yes, social media is famously fickle, but it can also be powerful. And while #BringBackOurGirls has become popular worldwide, the campaign originated in Nigeria, where citizens are becoming more vocal about demanding accountability from their government. That, more than any intervention from the West, is what it will take to root out Boko Haram and silence outrages from the likes of Abubakar Shekau.

--Editors: Lisa Beyer, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at