As French President Francois Hollande decried the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) November 13th Paris attacks as an act of war, a conflict of less deadly outcomes was being waged on worldwide social media. Thousands of tweets, Facebook updates, and Instagram posts criticized the disproportionate media coverage and public sympathy the Paris violence evoked—particularly in the West—when comparable acts of mass violence in the developing world failed to garner as much as a solidarity hashtag. From the Beirut bombings in Lebanon to April’s Garissa massacre in Kenya, many questioned why the suffering inflicted during these atrocities was not captured in widespread news headlines, online safety check-ins, or flag-embellished profile pictures.
As examinations of mass violence outside of the Western world intensified, focus soon shifted to Nigeria, where the Boko Haram group has been waging a particularly bloody insurgency since 2009. Previously uninitiated members of the public seemed to be as perplexed by the scale of Boko Haram violence as they were by the perceived lack of lack of exposure that the conflict was receiving. Those condemning global apathy toward Nigeria may even have felt perversely vindicated when reports from the city of Yola confirmed that 32 people were killed in a bombing at a bustling vegetable market on November 17th. Less than 24 hours later, the death toll increased when two female attackers, aged 11 and 18, detonated suicide belts in the northern city of Kano.
Coinciding with these attacks, the Institute for Economics and Peace think tank released the 2015 edition of its Global Terrorism Index (GTI), an annual publication that collates global terrorism data from the previous year and uses it to rank terrorist activity. This year’s index indicated that 2014 marked the deadliest year for global terrorism ever recorded, with 32,658 terrorist-related fatalities recorded across the world; an estimated 80% increase from 2013. The latest report also noted that the number of countries that experienced an act of terrorism had increased from 59 in 2013 to 67 in 2014.
Undoubtedly the most reported aspect of the GTI, however, was that Boko Haram emerged as the deadliest terrorist organization in the world. By accounting for a supposed 6,664 deaths in 2014, it displaced ISIS—to whom it pledged allegiance in March 2015—as the most lethal of the world’s extremist organizations.
But how accurate are these rankings and the figures which underpin them?
Firstly, it is important to note that the GTI draws its information from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. The GTD professes to be most comprehensive declassified terrorism database in the world, with an estimated 140,000 incidents recorded between 1994 and 2014. However, its greatest strength may also be its biggest weakness. The GTD’s ability to track terrorism incidents globally is leveraged off open-source data, generally in the form of news reports. Although it only records data from verified sources, this does not preclude validated sources from capturing inaccurate information.
There is no better example for highlighting this potential shortcoming than the nature of the Boko Haram insurgency. Unlike in Paris, Beirut, or even Yola and Kano, the majority of acts of mass violence attributed to the group occur in areas of Nigeria where news cameras do not roll and where hospital death records are non-existent. This was particularly the case in 2014, when Boko Haram recorded massacre after massacre in rural northeastern Nigeria as it set forth on building its own dawlah, or Islamic province. In most cases, the only records of the violence were eyewitness accounts of panic-stricken civilians residing in a part of Nigeria which, according to a World Bank study, has among the lowest literacy rates in the world.
The difficulties in garnering factual accounts and information of Boko Haram violence was perhaps best captured by Agence France Press Nigerian bureau chief Phil Hazlewood, in a blog entry entitled “Killing in a media blackout.” Using the January 2015 Baga massacre as an example, Hazlewood detailed how destroyed telecommunications infrastructure, a hostile government, and an even more inimical than usual perpetrator of extremist violence, were among the myriad obstacles to sourcing accurate information on the insurgency and its victims.
Difficulties in quantifying Boko Haram’s lethality are further compounded by the sect’s very poor media relations. Unlike other Islamist movements such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabaab, Boko Haram has no formal mouthpiece to claim or denounce mass violence attributed to its armed campaign. This briefly changed in 2015, when it announced the creation of the al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Link) media outlet and associated Twitter account. However, apart from releasing a few videos, it has failed to reach any level of proficiency.
Prior to 2015, Boko Haram released no more than a few dozen communiques in which it would sporadically claim responsibility for notable attacks, such as the August 2011 bombing of a United Nations building in Abuja and the 2014 Chibok mass kidnapping of schoolgirls. Of the 6,664 Boko Haram-related fatalities recorded in the 2015 GTI—a cumulative casualty figure derived from more than 500 separate incidents of armed violence in Nigeria and Cameroon in 2014—less than 5% were officially claimed by Boko Haram.
The conclusion is that Boko Haram may or may not be the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, but there is not enough verifiable information to confirm or disprove such claims. And, with the insurgency largely occurring in a region of Nigeria where ethno-religious tensions, land disputes, and wanton criminality have often culminated in mass violence, the importance of verifying the actors behind the bloodshed cannot be overstated.
Regardless, similar to reducing human suffering to hashtags, retweets, and likes, Boko Haram’s relative ranking among armed groups does not change the reality for those impacted by its violence. The sect continues to inflict widespread murder and violence within an area that has now expanded from the confines of Nigeria’s borders to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the absence of a response beyond social media slogans or the composition of a global hierarchy of terror, suffering will continue to rise for the many within Boko Haram’s reach.