THE mass murderer was reportedly dressed to kill — not in military fatigues but in a school uniform, and a backpack containing explosives that, when detonated in the midst of a Monday morning assembly, killed nearly 50 schoolboys and injured dozens more.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion inevitably fell on Boko Haram, given the terrorist attack was perpetrated in north-eastern Nigeria at the Government Technical Science College in Potiskum, in the state of Yobe.

Potiskum is not too far away from Chibok in neighbouring Borno state, which attracted international attention earlier when Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls. The outrage occasioned by that incident spurred vows of Western assistance for a government out of its depth in terms of tackling the Islamists. There is no clear indication that any materialised. If it did, it does not appear to have helped very much.

The militant mindset is not likely to go away.
The Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan has laid claim to various military successes against Boko Haram, and in mid-October it announced that a ceasefire had been agreed that would, inter alia, entail the release of the Chibok girls. Last week, though, the purported leader of the terrorist outfit, Abubakar Shekau, denied that any ceasefire talks had taken place, and declared that the abducted girls had been converted to Islam and “married off”.

The fact that his announcements carry somewhat more credibility than official pronouncements offers a hint of the contempt with which many Nigerians view their government.

The Potiskum atrocity was not by any means the first of its kind. Dozens of students died, for instance, in an attack last February on a dormitory in nearby Mamudo village. And just last week, another suicide bomber claimed 15 lives in an attack on a Shia ceremony in Potsikum itself.

Boko Haram is also believed to have captured several villages in the north of Nigeria in recent months, and Shekau’s latest intervention has led analysts to conclude that any attempt at negotiations is bound to be futile, and that ultimately only a military solution could prove tenable.

That is not by any means a pleasant conclusion, but one must concede that the chances of any sort of negotiated solution are exceedingly grim. The trouble, of course, is that the Nigerian military is yet to demonstrate it is up to the task. And, sadly, there is no dearth of parallels elsewhere.

For instance, an American airstrike near Mosul in Iraq in recent days is said to have struck a significant blow against the outfit that calls itself Islamic State, amid suggestions that the self-ordained caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been injured, even killed. The possibility cannot be dismissed, and if true it would qualify as a considerable achievement in “degrading” IS, even though no one seems to have a particularly clear idea of what such an outcome would entail for the group, which has wreaked havoc in two countries and apparently won allegiance in others from like-minded outfits.

On the other hand, while serious concerns remain about the capacity of local forces, from Iran-backed Shia militias to the Kurdish Peshmerga, to take advantage of airborne international assistance, the momentum of IS does appear to have been thwarted in both Iraq and Syria.

The threat to Baghdad appears to have receded, and the Syrian town of Kobane on the Turkish border has at least not fallen to IS.

One should hesitate, however, to read too much into these undoubtedly welcome setbacks for Baghdadi’s forces. Even the most optimistic analysts envisage a long conflict ahead, with the situation inevitably complicated by concerns such as the prospect of the Western intervention bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the fact that the most determined anti-IS combatants in Iraq owe allegiance to Iran.

An even closer parallel to Boko Haram can be found in Pakistan’s Taliban, who appear thus far to have withstood a months-long military assault, complemented every now and then by drone strikes. Whatever is actually going on in the areas targeted by the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-i-Azb remains shrouded in murk, with occasional declarations of success inviting scepticism — not least in the wake of atrocities such as the Wagah bombing on the border with India.

What’s arguably even more alarming is the kind of mindset that last week facilitated the unspeakable atrocity whereby Shama and Shehzad, a young Christian couple falsely accused of blasphemy, were burned to death by a frenzied mob in Kot Radha Krishan.

Unless such attitudes can somehow be neutralised, there is plenty of cause to fear that the black and white flags of those who believe themselves to be upholding the similarly hued tenets of their faith are unlikely to be lowered anytime soon.