Nigeria's Boko Haram 'More Extreme Than Al-Qaida,' Journalist Says
July 16, 2014 — 11:00 AM
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The Nigerian group Boko Haram is part of a new generation of Islamist extremists. It was founded in 2002, but received only limited, periodic attention until April when it kidnapped more than 200 girls after raiding a school in northeastern Nigeria and threatening to marry the girls off or sell them as slaves. Some girls escaped, but many are still missing.
Journalist Alex Perry wrote a recent cover story for Newsweek about the group and the new e-book The Hunt for Boko Haram: Investigating the Terror Tearing Nigeria Apart, published by Newsweek. He says Boko Haram doesn't have logical reasons for the atrocities it commits.
"If you're looking for logic and clarity and well-thought-out strategy in a group like Boko Haram, you're going to come up wanting," Perry tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This is not smart jihadi thinking. These guys are really badly educated. They're dumb, essentially."
Perry is a contributing editor for Newsweek and served as a bureau chief in Africa and India for Time. His forthcoming book is The Rift: The Future of Africa.
He talks about Boko Haram's founder, its current leader and how the group tries to justify the many violent acts it commits, including beheadings.
On the nature of Boko Haram and its motives
Why is this group abusing, selling off girls, kidnapping them? Why is it killing boys? Why is [it] killing any children? Why is it beheading people left, right and center? Why is it wiping out villages and showing this capacity for extreme and merciless violence? It's quite a difficult question to answer. ...
What it is ... is heavily armed playground thuggery in an area of absolutely no government control, of [complete] lawlessness and impunity where they're allowed to do what they want, so the baddest guy wins.
On whom Boko Haram targets when it posts gruesome videos of killings on YouTube
They're quite grandiose. They imagine that they're speaking to the world, they imagine that they're speaking to the president of the U.S., and the reality is that they're really only speaking to the people [who] are immediately around them.
The uncomfortable problem that that sets up for Western campaigners who, very naturally, expressed concern for the girls [who] were kidnapped is that these guys were looking for attention. And with the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign that went viral on Twitter ... and [how it] got people involved from Angelina Jolie to the president of Nepal [Ram Baran Yadav] to Malala [Yousafzai] — the girl from Pakistan [who gained prominence after being shot in 2012 by the Pakistani Taliban while campaigning for girls' education] — to whoever — well, that gave Boko Haram the kind of attention ... it only could ever have dreamed of.
On Boko Haram's relationship to al-Qaida
They seem to be even more extreme than al-Qaida. A few years ago, we could've barely imagined that. The lack of education among the highest leadership makes them very difficult to reason with, to talk to, and to expect anything other than [a] nihilist pursuit — or violence and death, really.
I read [Osama] bin Laden's letters from the stash that was picked up from Abbottabad [Pakistan] after he was killed — and it's really interesting. After about 2007, he clearly rethinks the whole project and starts writing all these letters to different groups around the world saying, "Calm down. Stop the killing. Stop making us so unpopular."
On the U.S. advisers who went to Nigeria to work with the military to help save the kidnapped girls
I think very quickly these advisers turned 'round and said, "There is no way we can work with these people. This is a criminalized army. We have no idea where our money or expertise — what it would go towards."
One thing that a lot of countries offered was surveillance drones. Well, the truth is, Nigeria has its own drones. They're sitting parked in a hangar in Abuja. [Nigeria] just never used them. There's some question of whether it knows how to. I think the advisers, when they arrived, realized fairly rapidly that they were stepping into some very, very difficult waters and were being asked to create a relationship with an army that they really were going to have difficulty working with. ...
I'm talking about the official Nigerian army — it's by any reckoning one of the biggest criminal organizations in Nigeria. That doesn't mean that it's a unified mafia group, but at the senior level, the generals are filling their pockets — and these are the guys that the advisers were going to have to be working with.
Source: NPR [http://www.npr.org/2014/07/16/331988815/nigerias-boko-haram-more-extreme-than-al-qaida-journalist-says?ft=3&f=1003,1004,1007,1013,1014,1017,1019,1128]
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The group Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 200 girls after raiding a school in northeastern Nigeria, threatening to marry them off or sell them as slaves, is part of a new generation of Islamist extremists. The group was founded in 2002, but few Americans were aware of it until the mass kidnapping this past April. My guest Alex Perry wrote the Newsweek cover story about the group, and has just written an e-book published by Newsweek titled "The Hunt For Boko Haram," investigating the terror tearing Nigeria apart. We're going to talk about the group's founder, its current leader, and how the group tries to justify the many atrocities it commits, including beheadings.
Alex Perry is a contributing editor at Newsweek, and served as a Bureau chief in Africa and India for Time magazine. He has a forthcoming book called "The Rift: The Future Of Africa."
Alex Perry, welcome to FRESH AIR. What's the latest information you have on the girls who were kidnapped from school by Boko Haram?
ALEX PERRY: Well, there's very little information, fresh information, that's come out from Nigeria for a number of weeks now. There were reports that some girls had managed to escape a couple of weeks ago. And that really, is the best and only news we can expect. The Nigerian government has said it's not going to conduct any kind of military operation to try and rescue these girls. And, it has been blocked, strong-armed essentially, by Western allies from negotiating with Boko Haram, which essentially gives it no options at all, you know. It's only options are to rescue or to talk, and it's ruled both those out. So really, the girls are on their own. The best information we have and I stress that it is pretty sketchy, is that most likely the girls are no longer in one group but have split up - being split up into several different ones. Possibly some of them taken across borders into different countries, into Cameroon, into Chad. Likely to now be some of them married off to Boko Haram fighters or indeed to - to others who paid for them commercially. They are, basically, on their own. And escape is really their best hope.
GROSS: The kidnapping of the schoolgirls was - was really shocking. But you write in your e-book that when Boko Haram attacks boys' schools, what they do is slit the boy's throats. So it's like the - you would assume that this is an attack on girls' education, but they're attacking boys schools too. What's that about?
PERRY: Yeah. Well, I mean, look, Boko Haram have been going for - as a violent group - for five years. They - they were, a sort of peaceful group for much longer before that. But yes, the idea very popular among sort of, Western campaigners, that this is an issue of girls' education is mistaken. That's a very popular rallying call among aid campaigners and advocates in the West right now. Essentially the idea being that if you're poor and backwards, you're probably sexist. And that if you free all women from the bonds of this sort of, semi-enslavement, you will fix not just your economy, but your general sense of well-being, your happiness, your development, and so on. It, like a lot of these Western ideas that sort of seem to offer a panacea for all the world's problems in a single sentence, it really doesn't apply when you get down to the nitty-gritty of circumstance in the developing world. And in this case, the idea that this is an issue of girls' education really is shoehorning a very different situation into an established Western narrative.
When the - when Boko Haram raid a school - yes they kidnapped all the girls - but as I say, as you say, and the book; they kill all the boys. You know, being girls saved these schoolgirls. Their gender saved them. So - so the idea that this is some sort of issue of backward Muslim sexism is fairly misplaced. And you know if pursued, probably leads the West to a fairly wrongheaded response.
GROSS: Yes, but we must add - right - that this group really is sexist, and that they're selling off these girls into slavery or marriage. But anyways, why are they attacking children? I mean I think that's - that's the larger question.
PERRY: Well, sure. Look - okay so the bigger question is, you know, why is this, yea why is this group of abusing, selling off girls, kidnapping them? Why is it killing boys? Why is it killing any children? Why is it beheading people left, right and center? Why is it wiping out villages and sharing this capacity for sort of extreme and merciless violence?
You know it's quite a difficult question to answer if you're looking for logical explanations. If you're looking for logic and clarity, and, well-thought-out strategy in a group like Boko Haram, you're going to come up wanting. You know, this is not smart Jihadi thinking. These guys are really badly educated, you know, they're dumb, essentially. And that - and what it is essentially heavily armed playground thuggery. In an area of absolutely no government control, of complete lawlessness and impunity, where they're allowed to do what they want. So the baddest guy wins.
You know, this is not the plot of some evil genius terrorists. You know, this really is fairly dumb-headed, poorly educated teenagers with an enormous amount of weaponry and resources. You know, it's a perfect nightmare. Not least because that means in some ways, there's no talking to these people, because a lot of the time they don't even seem to be able to articulate really what they want. They can only really articulate, and often in a violent way, what they're against.
GROSS: And what are they against?
PERRY: Just about anything you can care to name. I mean they are - they have their origins in a fairly widespread popular anger in Nigeria at the government. Which is one of the most corrupt on Earth, and as - in the 50 years since Independent posted world record corruption, there was a startling survey a few years back in Nigeria that found that the Nigerian government had stolen from its people 400 billion dollars, which was more than all the aid that went to go - went the other way to Africa, in the same period. You know, it's an astonishing amount to steal from a country, not least, from a country that, after all, was pretty poor.
So there is very widespread anger and discontent among the general population in Nigeria at their leaders, who have almost entirely disconnected themselves from the population. And that's what Boko Haram taps into, in terms of some kind of popular legitimacy. But they've taken it to - to an almost ludicrous, sort of, level in that their response is, well we need to get back to an earlier Luddite, Purist age where there wasn't capitalism, where there wasn't computers, where there wasn't business, where there wasn't any kind of progress because all that has brought us this corruption, this type of government, this type of rapacious business. What we need to do is, is to get back to an earlier age where, almost medieval, where, you know, we follow the word of this book and everyone walks around barefoot. And I mean they're against - the leader of Boko Haram before he was killed in 2009, said that he didn't believe in things like the roundness of the earth, and the evaporation of water, let alone evolution or constitutional law.
GROSS: In your e-book, "The Hunt For Boko Haram," you describe a visit with a Nigerian general who wants to show you what he is up against with Boko Haram. So he shows you videos of the former number two, in Boko Haram, Abu Saad. And one of the videos is of this leader's men attacking, and then receiving fire. I want you to describe what you saw this video.
PERRY: So the - initially there's a kind of a speech to the troops from Abu Saad - the former number two of Boko Haram - and he's basically saying, we're going to attack this base tomorrow. Most of the people who wrote the plan for this attack are already dead. And that's good, and you should be pretty happy about the prospect of death. That's, that's - you know, that's as good as winning. That is victory. That means God is smiling on you.
Then the video cuts to dawn the next day, and Boko Haram fighters are walking through the bush up to this base - this Nigerian army base on the Nigerian-Cameroon border. They start receiving fire and it's actually incredible. There's absolutely no change of pace, nobody really seems to look for cover, fighters around the cameraman who'd filming this start dropping. But nobody speeds up, pauses, they raise their guns, they fire, but they basically just walk right into this (unintelligible) and get cut down.
Some of them make it to - to behind a kind of toilet block and take a bit of cover there. And they start shouting back at the men behind them, you know, stop shooting, 'cause you're shooting us. I mean, the guys that are walking in there aren't really caring whether, you know, they're hitting the enemy or their own side. And then suddenly the camera goes down on its side and you hear this voice, you know, the cameraman's voice, who has been shouting, Allahu Akbar, all the way through - he says, they've killed me and the camera stays there. You know, as you say, I was watching it with a general in the Nigerian army. And he wanted to show me this because he said he'd never seen anything like it. That kind of nonchalance walking into death, you know, casual. It's very spooky, it's very eerie, you know, it's hard almost to see - to believe what you're seeing on the screen.
GROSS: Then you see a video of Abu Saad, the number two - the former number two in Boko Haram lecturing a group of children and you quote him as saying, you must wage war, You must perform every violent act you can. Then he turns to the camera and says, you can kill us but these children will continue, children are the future.
PERRY: I know, I mean, isn't that...
GROSS: It's so bizarre to hear...
PERRY: isn't that the perfect sort of inversion?
GROSS: Yes exactly.
PERRY: Yeah, it's a sort of- it's a slogan right? The children are the future is a sort of happy slogan that people use in schools about education and so on. And here is this guy using exactly the same phraseology to describe a kind of endless bloody jihad. I mean it's - yeah, it's horrifying really. And the kids around him, I mean, they are so young. Some of them barely come up to his waist, you know, I was asking the general, well how old do you think these kids are? How old are the kids that Boko Haram is taking off of these kind of camps? And he said, well, four, five. I mean it's extreme child abuse and sure enough, you know, on cue whenever Abu Saad hits his notes, the children will shout, Allahu Akbar, we will fight, we will die, you know, It's a perfect sort of negative image of normal classroom behavior and just, you know, horrifying.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Alex Perry. He's the author of the new book "The Hunt For Boko Haram," which is published by Newsweek, where he's a contributing editor. He's a former African Bureau Chief at Time magazine and he has a forthcoming book about Africa called "The Rift." Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Perry. And he wrote the cover story on Boko Haram in this week's Newsweek. He is also author of a new e-book called "The Hunt For Boko Haram." That's published by Newsweek, where he's a contributing editor. One more video I want to ask you about that the Nigerian general showed you, and this is a video of Abu Sa'ad, the former number two in Boko Haram saying, let's thank God and give him more bodies. Then he pulls a knife from his combat vest and decapitates two men. I'm not going to ask you to describe what you saw. I'm sure it was quite gruesome. But describe for us what it looked like he was trying to accomplish by doing this. Was there a group of spectators?
PERRY: Yeah, yeah. There was maybe 50 guys around. And very clearly what Abu Sa'ad was trying to do was trying to say, you know, kind of the opposite of what I've just said - that we're not mindless thugs, that we are doing this according to the precepts of this interpretation of holy writings that I am now going to read out for you. And he, you know - he speaks for about 10 minutes, you know, quoting various passages in full. And he's trying to say, you know, here we are doing things literally by the book. And, I mean, this is becoming - you know, in this new generation of jihadi groups that almost make, you know, al-Qaida look soft - you know, you see the same thing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The beheadings is becoming almost a religious ceremony. It always involves reading from some sacred text. And then it always involves - you know, it has to be the sword rather than the gun or anything like that because that's somehow more ancient and, therefore, righteous. You know, and the whole thing is conducted very much like a religious ceremony, you know, but obviously absolutely horrifying. And again, you know, you're confronted by the sort of inversion of, say, schooling or the inversion of what religion is meant to be. It's everything absolutely turned on its head.
GROSS: Another thing that makes this video sound so gruesome, the way you describe it, is the first police officer that he decapitates, he does a terrible job at it. It sounds like he's, like, sawing away. And it's not working, and he doesn't know what he's doing. You know, as if a beheading wasn't bad enough, but to do it so poorly, intensifying the pain and suffering of the person dying, is just...
GROSS: Makes the whole thing even more horrifying. You know, he talks in this video about how he's doing it in accordance with the book. You quote him as saying, "we are punishing in terms of what Allah prescribes. I want to tell Nigeria and the world that we give them the gift of these two policemen, this sergeant and corporal. We want to give these men the judgment of Allah. We are going to do things in accordance with the book." What is the book he is referring to?
PERRY: Well, he's...
GROSS: It's not the Quran.
PERRY: No, no. He's holding up - I mean, it took me quite a while to find it. But he's holding up a book which is the interpretation by a 19th century Saudi scholar, of an interpretation itself by another Saudi scholar from the 13th century, of an original text from somewhere in the seventh or eighth century. You know, it's reasonably obscure, scholastic text. But what it is is from the Saudi - I mean, all these interpretations sort of reinforce the very strict, Saudi-Wahhabi line, which is no deviation from the written word and, you know, no modernization, no progression, no reformation. Hence the use of swords, for instance, because when the text was originally written, there weren't guns. So, you know, we have to use swords. You know, hence the free use of execution and decapitation, which were more much more common a thousand years ago.
GROSS: So in spite of the fact that Boko Haram wants to do things in accordance to ancient times and use swords and not guns, they're videoing the decapitations.
GROSS: They're videoing battles and stuff. So...
GROSS: It seems kind of, you know, hypocritical, but...
PERRY: Yeah. Here's the inconsistency of the group. They're incredibly well-connected. They upload to YouTube. They've clearly got satellite technology. They talk about, you know, the purest Luddite age, but they drive around in a Toyota HiLux that's fitted out with the latest equipment. They say that they want to be left alone in northern Nigeria, you know, by a world and a government that has largely ignored them. But by igniting this insurgency, they force the Nigerian government and the world to try and confront them. You know, the whole movement is riven with inconsistency and contradiction. That doesn't make them, by the way, any less dangerous. If anything, it makes them more dangerous. The fact that they're not thinking straight makes them completely unpredictable.
GROSS: So who are these videos for? Do they want the villagers to see it and be terrified? Do they want the world to see it and be terrified?
PERRY: Well, they seem to want to broadcast out to the world, yes. They - you know, Abu Sa'ad said at one point, you know, he wants the world to see the gift of these two policeman that he's about to execute. The reality is that the tapes and the videos and so on are reasonably widely distributed in Boko Haram areas but don't really get much of a wider audience. I mean, I think that's reasonably typical of these sorts of groups in that they - you know, they're quite grandiose. They imagine they're speaking to the world. They imagine they're speaking to the president of the U.S.. And the reality is they're really only speaking to the people that are immediately around them. The contradiction - or the uncomfortable problem that that sets up for Western campaigners who very naturally expressed concern for the girls that were kidnapped, is that these guys were looking for attention. And with the bring back our girls campaign that went viral on Twitter and so on and got people involved from Angelina Jolie, to the president of Nepal, to Malala, the girl from Pakistan, to whoever - well, that gave Boko Haram the kind of attention for which they could only ever have dreamed of.
GROSS: Alex Perry will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote the Newsweek cover story about Boko Haram and is the author of the new e-book "The Hunt For Boko Haram." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Alex Perry. We're talking about the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which in April raided a school in northeastern Nigeria and kidnapped over 200 girls, threatening to marry them off or sell them as slaves. Alex Perry wrote the Newsweek cover story about Boko Haram and has edited a new e-book called "The Hunt For Boko Haram." Let's talk about the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf. He was a young preacher at the time he founded it - tell us little bit about him.
PERRY: Yeah, so Mohammed Yusuf - he was apparently a very charismatic speaker. He tapped into the resentment at the central government and at the provincial government that was felt in a town called Maiduguri in the far north of Nigeria, which is really one of the most destitute places on earth. All the indices that you could care to mention like kids education, health, nutrition - they're all at rock-bottom levels. The average girl, for instance, gets three weeks of education in her lifetime. So, you know, let it be said that most of those grievances into which he was tapping into and expressing were perfectly legitimate, and the Nigerian government has forsaken the Northeast of Nigeria. It's done absolutely nothing for the people. It's stolen most of the money that was destined there and put it into Swiss bank accounts. So these grievances are very legitimate. Mohammed Yusuf went further, however. He pushed these grievances into this very purist form of Islam - very literal - by the book. He rejected almost all notions of progress. It was he who said the evaporation of water is Haram. The world is not round. Evolution never happened. You know, I mean really, he was medievalist in his thinking. But because of his charisma, because of the wellspring of grievances that he was able to tap into, he became kind of a rock-star and was able to build up a large following across the Northeast. But I think almost wider across the North over to cities like Kano as well - he had quite a following too.
GROSS: So Mohammed Yusuf was killed a couple of years ago?
PERRY: He was killed in 2009. The way that the Boko Haram insurgency graduated from a sort of fairly peaceful protest movement into a full on rebellion was fairly bizarre. There was a funeral procession going through Maiduguri - there were a lot of guys riding motorbikes, they weren't wearing helmets - that was a bit of an issue in town because the police insisted on people wearing helmets. And Boko Haram supporters said no because that meant removing the Muslim cap when the funeral procession passed, the police attacked. Three people died and it just kicked off - absolutely spread through like wildfire and within about 36 hours, there were about were 600 or 700 dead people. Mohammed Yusuf was arrested and, you know, there's videotape of him in police custody. Almost immediately, the police just executed him. In fact, I'm not sure it's known to this day where his body is. That of course was massively counterproductive. And, you know, the death toll meant that Boko Haram shrank back into the shadows for a year or so but with their martyred leader and now serious injury done to their ranks, Boko Haram came back about a year later stronger than ever and absolutely merciless - started bombing churches, cutting down moderate Muslims as they emerged from prayers, laying waste to whole towns. They attacked - you know - big, big targets. They attacked like - cities like Damaturu and Kano - took out police stations - really full on ferocious insurgency. And the Nigerian government and the Nigerian police - who after all had essentially played a part in provoking this - just couldn't cope.
GROSS: The current leader of Boko Haram is Abubakar Shekau. Tell us about him.
PERRY: I mean, he was one of Mohammed Yusuf's left tenants and was one of two or three that might've taken over when Mohammed Yusuf died. He seems to have taken over simply by being the baddest of the bunch. And he too used to be a sort of lesser preacher but he made the full conversion to guerrilla fighter. In fact, if you look at different videos and photos of him at those different stages, he's physically transformed. I mean, he's a much, much bigger man today - struts around in full camo gear, wearing bandoliers of bullets and an AK on his hip. I mean, he's seriously built these days. I mean, there's lots of rumors about this guy. You know, some people say that he's dead - that the guy that you see now on TV is a sort of imposter. Other people say that he's working very closely with the Nigerian government. Other people say that he's a - you know - that he's a CIA front. There are all sorts of rumors about him. But I think what you get if you watch his speeches and his broadcasts and so on is that this guy is unhinged. I mean, he is not thinking normally. He smiles at wild moments during his speeches. He - he's clearly reveling in the attention. He rambles. There's really very little logic. He goes on and on and on and on. You know, this - he's got a weird kind of gurning look to his jaw. He's a strange looking fellow.
GROSS: There are several different extremely extremist Islamist groups now in different parts of Africa and the Middle East. So you've got al-Qaida, you've got ISIS, you've got Al-Shabaab in Somalia, you got al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and of course you have Boko Haram. How interconnected do you think these groups are and do you see them all becoming more interconnected?
PERRY: You know, there's two sort of analyses. One of them is extremely alarming. And it is that across the entire Sahel, the band of desert and scrub below the Sahara, you have almost constant radicalization, constant conflict and that is a band linking groups of bad guys from Mali to Nigeria to Chad to CAR, all the way to Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya. And that this is the new front in the war on terror if you like is in Africa. I think that's - I mean, that's an extremely alarming analysis but I think it's fairly alarmist as well. There is no doubt that these groups have some sort of communication and occasionally share personnel. But the idea that they're in any way operating as a coordinated group is - well, there's no evidence for that at all. They don't have the capacity and I don't think they really have a strategic plan that would warrant that. You know, there's been - I've never heard it expressed by any of these groups - they want to take over Africa or they want to take over the Sahel. Their concerns tend to be fairly local. Shabaab is focused on Somalia and Kenya with occasional attacks in Uganda and Tanzania. Boko Haram is the most local of the lot, almost exclusively focused on the northeast of Nigeria and occasionally reaching out to the capital in Abuja. So I find the idea that this is the latest battle in the global war on terror just way too simplistic.
GROSS: You know, when I think about al-Qaida, Bin Laden was from a very wealthy, very educated family. His number two, Ayman Zawahiri, who's now the number one, he was very educated as well - he was a doctor. In these newer groups, are there people who are from similar backgrounds who are educated and from prosperous families and who may have become very extreme but have some education behind them?
PERRY: There are, but they are increasingly pushed into the margins. I mean, the point you bring up there is I think is absolutely crucial to understanding, you know, this kind of second generation of Islamist groups after al-Qaida and why they seem to be even more extreme than al-Qaida - you know - were - a few years ago, we could've barely imagine that. But the lack of education among the highest leadership is - makes them very difficult to reason with, to talk to, to - and to expect anything other than sort of an airless pursuit of violence and death really. I mean, I read Bin Laden's letters from the stash that was picked up from Abbottabad after he was killed. And they're - it's really interesting - about 2007, he clearly rethinks the whole project and starts writing all these letters to different groups around the world, saying, you know, calm down, stop the killing, stop - stop making us so unpopular. You know, we've got to start doing hearts and minds kind of stuff. We've got to start doing aid work. This indiscriminate killing is a really, really bad strategy. He doesn't go as far as to express regret for 9/11, but he is clearly thinking the kind of indiscriminate bombing that you saw in 9/11 or the East Africa embassy bombings before that in '98 was a tactical mistake. And there's this argument that goes on between him and senior al-Qaida figures and the groups around the world for years, where the leaders are trying to ask these groups to calm down - and the groups refuse and disobey and continue with their kind of killing spree and begin to see the killing as - as almost the religion. As I said, a lot of the beheadings and stuff - there's a very - there's a ceremonial aspect to this. And this - you know - the killing becomes not a means to an end but actually the end in itself. And that's what's so scary about these new groups is that there's no scholarly mind at work here. There's no great plan, you know. It's just an orgy of destruction.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alex Perry and he wrote the cover story in this week's Newsweek about Boko Haram. He's also the author of a new e-book that's called "The Hunt For Boko Haram: Investigating The Terror Tearing Nigeria Apart." It's published by Newsweek. He's a contributing editor at the magazine. Let's take a short break, then we we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the extremist group Boko Haram with my guest Alex Perry, who wrote a cover story on that extremist group for Newsweek. And he is also the author of a new e-book called "The Hunt For Boko Haram: Investigating The Terror Tearing Nigeria Apart," which is published by Newsweek, where he's a contributing editor. He's a former Africa bureau chief for Time Magazine. Let's talk a little bit about the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. Can I just ask you, first, how he got his name? Whenever I read about him, I always wonder that. Do you know?
PERRY: (Laughing) Yeah. To be honest, I don't know. But I mean, his wife is called Patience. There is, you know - names in Nigeria are often quite sort of esoteric to a Western ear. But yeah, I don't know - I don't think it's anything to do with politics. I think it's simply parents hoping the best for their child.
GROSS: So Goodluck Jonathan is Christian. His wife said - after the girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, his wife first accused the girls' parents of inventing the whole thing to embarrass her husband. And then she told people not to criticize her husband, the president, since his presidency was the work of God. So is he extremist in his Christianity?
PERRY: No, no. I don't think so. No, what that was was - I mean, she was trying to come to her husband's aid. You know, he was under attack and looking pretty incompetent and inept. You know, it took 19 days for the Nigerian government even to notice that the girls had gone missing. And then it promptly denied that they had. She was trying to help her husband because he was under increasing attack from abroad and inside Nigeria. And this is what was so interesting, was that the girls became kind of a funnel for popular anger, you know, for all Nigerians to express all their grievances at a government that seemed almost indifferent to their lives. And she comes out in support of her husband and instead of putting an argument in his defense, just behaves so abominably that she sort of confirms everybody's suspicion. You know, as you say, first of all, she says to the parents, you know, who, after all, are grief stricken and, you know, in a huge trauma and stress, oh, you're all lying. Then, when one of the protest leaders - she summons the protest leaders to meet her. And when only two of them turn up, she thinks that's inappropriate and doesn't show enough deference to her standing. So she has that person arrested. (Laughing) Then she says, don't criticize my husband; his presidency is the work of God, as in basically saying he has a divine right to rule. You know, almost sort of saying, he is a king. He is a monarch. You know, go away, you little people. And then she appears on live television and sees God, you know, starts saying, there is God. There is God. You know, trying to justify her early statement of - that God is around. She spots him there, on live TV, and starts wailing to the cameras. I mean, I saw this, you know, with a bunch of Nigerian friends. And they were just wincing at this performance. It was the most excruciating thing to watch and just, you know, really bad play-acting. And it just showed real, cynical indifference to the plight of these girls. It couldn't have been worse.
GROSS: Initially, after the girls were kidnapped, the U.S. government was going to send people to help search for them. What happened with that?
PERRY: So, I mean, they arrived, you know. In this case, what tends to happen is that Western governments will send what they called military advisers, which are, you know, basically spooks - or paramilitary spooks. And so the U.S. did that. Israel did that. China did that. Britain did that. France offered some sort of surveillance help. And, I think, very quickly these advisers turned around and said, there is no way we can work with these people. You know, this is a criminalized army. We've no idea where our money or expertise - you know, what it would go towards. I mean, one thing that a lot of countries offered was surveillance drones. Well, the truth is Nigeria has its own drones. They're sitting parked in a hangar in Abuja. It's just never used them. There's some question of whether it knows how to. So this isn't - I think the advisers, when they arrive, realize fairly rapidly that they were stepping into some very, very difficult waters and, you know, were being asked to create a relationship with an army that they really, you know, were going to have difficulty working with.
GROSS: And you're talking about the official Nigerian army. You're not talking about a guerrilla army here.
PERRY: No, I'm talking about - yeah, the official Nigerian army is, you know, by any reckoning, one of the more - one of the biggest sort of corrupt, criminal organizations in Nigeria. You know, that doesn't mean that it's a unified kind of mafia group. But at the senior level, you know, the generals are filling their pockets. And these are the guys that the advisers were going to have to be working with. And that is something that I think, almost by law, it's very difficult for Western soldiers to do.
GROSS: So I think most Americans weren't really aware of Boko Haram until they kidnapped, you know, hundreds of girls from school. What's happened since then with the group? Have they been, you know, upping the ante with their violence?
PERRY: Yeah. Well, that was almost the sort of clearest evidence that they were kind of reveling in the attention that they were getting. They seriously stepped up their campaign. I mean, it seemed to be almost every day there was a new village massacre. There were other kidnappings. There were bomb attacks in Abuja and on government installations in other cities. I mean, they massively stepped up their campaign. It, you know, absolutely rocketed. And I think the death toll this year is coming up for 4,000 now. But, you know, I have to stress, you know, again, I mean, this area is so lawless. And it has such thin government that the death toll and the death statistics are incredibly unreliable. I mean, nobody really knows how many people have died in this war, even to the nearest few thousand. But it is a very uncomfortable realization, I think, for the campaign - is that, you know, this idea of raising awareness, while well-intentioned, seemed to be precisely what Boko Haram wanted. And when they got the attention from the world, they set about causing as much bloodshed in the spotlight as they could.
GROSS: Alex Perry, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And I wish you safe travels in your journalism.
PERRY: Thanks very much for having me.
GROSS: Alex Perry wrote the Newsweek cover story about Boko Haram and is the author of the new e-book "The Hunt For Boko Haram." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.