While the world fixated on the murder of 17 people by Islamic terrorists in Paris last week, another slow and grisly massacre was taking place in Nigeria, at the hands of the Islamist militants of Boko Haram.

The group launched an offensive Jan. 3 in the northeastern state of Borno, overpowering a military base in the town of Baga that was hosting multinational forces. Days later, it carried out what Amnesty International has called the “deadliest act” in the group’s history. Baga, a fishing town that borders Lake Chad, was virtually razed to the ground; estimates of the dead are in the hundreds, with some claiming a toll as high as 2,000. Subsequent attacks have killed more, including at least 19 who died in Borno’s capital town of Maiduguri when a 10-year-old girl was used to detonate a bomb.

The heinous butchery should be a wake-up call. It’s past time for Nigeria, West Africa and the West to recognize Boko Haram for what it has become: a complex terrorism threat on a scale comparable to the Islamic State, embedded in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation. Since January 2014, more than 5,000 have been killed in the fighting it has triggered, a count that rivals civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The horrific violence is only intensifying.

Like the Islamic State, Boko Haram says it aims to establish an Islamic caliphate. The group has captured a territory in northeastern Nigeria the size of Maryland, and as it has extended its operations to Cameroon and Niger, the threat has taken on a regional character. Cameroon appears to be Boko Haram’s second front; on Monday, Cameroonian forces battled a cross-border attack by Boko Haram on a military base, forcing many to flee.

Nigeria’s elections next month threaten to plunge the nation into a crisis; that makes Boko Haram’s escalating attacks more alarming. The insecurity in key northeastern states could suppress voter turnout in strongholds of the opposition to the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the eventual winner.

To his discredit, Jonathan has remained silent about the slaughter in Baga. He and his opponents have turned Boko Haram into a partisan issue, making it virtually impossible to formulate a comprehensive strategy for addressing the threat — including the long-standing underdevelopment in the north that is fueling radicalization.

That means the United States and other interested governments must step up pressure on Nigeria to address issues such as the systemic corruption and low morale in the military. Despite Nigeria’s massive security budget of $5 billion, a lack of equipment, tactical mistakes, human rights abuses and internal discord have severely hampered its army’s ability to contain, much less counter, Boko Haram’s increasingly sophisticated aggression.

Nigeria’s neighbors also need support. It is particularly urgent to address the regional humanitarian crisis caused by the violence: Some 200,000 people reportedly have fled Nigeria into Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The Baga attack alone drove 3,400 refugees into Chad. The Obama administration’s announcement of a $40 million security contingency fund for Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger in the fall was a welcome first step.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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