Suspected member of Islamist militant sect Boko Haram
Suspected member of Islamist militant sect Boko Haram

As violence perpetrated by Boko Haram spreads across northern Nigeria, the former U.S. ambassador to the country said Friday that Western intervention has been largely symbolic, with no U.S. military presence to help solve the ongoing crisis.

“There is no American on the ground out there in the jungles looking for people,” John Campbell, U.S. ambassador to Nigeria between 2003 and 2007, told International Business Times.

This comes just one day after 200 people were killed in an area in northern Nigeria on the border with Cameroon, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Boko Haram has tightened its grip on the Gwozo region, an area that is roughly 1,200 square kilometers.

“Boko Haram has cleared out an area of Nigeria about the size of Rhode Island,” Campbell said. “When I say cleared out, I mean destroyed all both secular and traditional government structures, killing the emir, but apparently has not established any alternative governance structure themselves.”

Since a flurry of media coverage and social media campaigns around Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, the group’s activities have received comparatively little attention. As Campbell noted, coverage was likewise scant before the kidnappings, though Boko Haram had been wreaking havoc in Nigeria since 2002.

“The Boko Haram thing has been widely underreported by Western media, really over the past several years,” Campbell said. “The kidnapping of the [200] girls was almost like throwing a switch. And I think an interesting question to ask is why did the kidnapping of the girls become a media sensation.”

Since the kidnapping, the U.S. State Department has sent 80 military personnel to a surveillance outpost in Chad and a government delegation to Abuja to consult with the Nigerian government. According to Campbell and Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of public policy at Northeastern University in Boston, the surveillance unit in Chad is home to armed drones.

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that Boko Haram killed more than 10,000 people between 2002 and 2013, and just two months before the mass kidnappings, 50 adolescent boys were slaughtered at a boarding school in the north of the country.

“That was a one-day story in the Nigerian press and essentially not a story at all in the Western press,” Campbell said of the killing of the boys.

The media took more interest in the kidnapping of the girls due to the potential they would be trafficked, which is “an area of acute interest to the United States,” Campbell said. Educational opportunity for women in the Islamic world has “not just been curtailed, but is shrinking,” he added. “And thirdly, unlike the boys who were killed in February, the girls are still alive and you can do something about that.”

When it comes to a potential U.S. role in finding the girls, “Americans very often feel there is no problem that they cannot solve,” Campbell said.

Yet, Abrahms told IBTimes, “I think it’s very smart for the U.S. not to get too involved. It’s very, very hard to wage effective counterinsurgency and effective counterterrorism, and it’s particularly hard to do so in a foreign country, because the success of counterinsurgency campaigns really depends on winning over the population, so if you’re a foreign power, you know, basically occupying a foreign country will breed resentment and ultimately be counter- productive.”

It’s more likely, Abrahms said, that drones could be used, although he conceded they have had a mixed success rate against guerilla groups like Boko Haram. “Drones are more effective against very centralized groups, very hierarchical groups,” he said. Boko Haram is very decentralized, with no real leadership.

Any on-the-ground involvement from the U.S. military could actually strengthen Boko Haram’s stranglehold on the region and gain them more support, Abrahms said. The reason, he said, is the residue of Nigeria’s colonial past. American involvement could galvanize opposition among those who see the superpower as symbolic of colonial exploitation.

Abrahms also noted that the U.S. public appears to be entering an “isolationist period” after fighting two wars during the last 14 years. Americans did widely support getting involved in Syria or Libya, and intervening in a West African country “feels even further removed from U.S. national security,” he said. “So really, there wouldn’t be stomach among Americans for a more proactive intervention.”

As for why Boko Haram has dropped off the media radar, Campbell cited short attention spans and geography: “For most Americans, Africa to start with, Nigeria more specifically, is basically as remote as the moon. And they just don’t know very much about it.”