Debating a Foreign Terrorist Organization Designation for Nigeria’s Boko Haram

Several US congresspersons and the US Justice Department are asking the US State Department to put the Northern Nigerian rebel movement Boko Haram on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The State Department gives information about the FTOs list here. These are the criteria for an FTO designation:

  1. It must be a foreign organization.
  2. The organization must engage in terrorist activity, as defined in section 212 (a)(3)(B) of the INA (8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(B)),* or terrorism, as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989 (22 U.S.C. § 2656f(d)(2)),** or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.
  3. The organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.

Since I first started hearing talk about an FTO designation for Boko Haram, I’ve felt it likely that the designation will happen. That feeling derives from two sources. First, there is a thermodynamic argument of sorts: an object in motion (pressure for the FTO designation) will stay in motion (and even acquire momentum if more forces push it along) unless a force acts to stop it. More bluntly, Republican lawmakers and conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation are using rhetoric like, “The Obama Administration should not jeopardize U.S. security with its complacency.” What would President Obama have to gain from picking a fight over a Nigerian rebel sect? It would be easier, politically, to either ignore the issue or (if pressure grows, as it seems to be doing) go ahead with the FTO designation.

Second, proponents of the designation have a fairly easy time making their legal case, it seems to me, given the breadth of the criteria for designation: Boko Haram is certainly a foreign organization and several of its attacks (such as the UN bombing last summer) meet almost any definition of terrorism. There is more to debate on the third point, regarding US national security, but if nothing else proponents could cite the proximity of the US Embassy in Abuja to two major Boko Haram bomb sites (the UN headquarters and the police headquarters). The Heritage Foundation (link above) goes further in saying that Boko Haram threatens to destabilize West Africa and could intend to attack the US directly.

If the designation is likely, that does not mean that it is wise. A group of American scholars has sent an open letter (.pdf) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arguing against the FTO designation. The letter warns that an FTO designation could “internationalize Boko Haram,” by which the authors mean that the designation might enhance Boko Haram’s standing among other militant groups and might even create a self-fulfilling prophecy by directing more of Boko Haram’s attention toward the US. The letter further warns that the designation could “legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long term strategy, and undermine the U.S. Government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.” Still other arguments are that the designation could distort Nigerian-American relations, limit scholarly analysis of Boko Haram, and make it “illegal for nongovernmental organizations to interact with members of Boko Haram – even if the purpose of such contact was to persuade them to renounce violence.”

The last argument is decisive for me. I am not a lawyer, but the legal consequences of an FTO designation, as explained by experts, seem like they would inhibit the efforts at dialogue that will most likely be necessary at some point if the violence, and the grievances that drive it, are to end.

Is it also important to ask how an FTO designation would play out politically in Nigeria. The Nigerian press is already covering the issue, but it is hard to get a sense of people’s reactions (commenters on Nigerian news websites represent a fraction of the population, though the few commenters – who seem to be mostly non-Muslim – on this article largely support the designation). One Nigerian commentator told me last week that the US must designate Boko Haram an FTO in order to preserve credibility with Nigerians. Within Muslim communities in the North, however, the designation could feed suspicions that America seeks greater control over Nigeria; this outcome would also, I expect, harm efforts to make peace. If reactions are divided, a designation might contribute to religious and regional polarization in Nigeria.

As we assess the potential value of an FTO designation, the point seems worth making that the US government possesses tools beyond the FTO list; deciding against an FTO designation would not equate to complacency in the face of Boko Haram.

In any case, if the increase in press coverage, public statements from lawmakers, and debate in Washington mean that an FTO designation is more likely to happen than not, the arguments for and against the designation will be put to the test.

What do you think should happen? And what do you think will happen?


16 thoughts on “Debating a Foreign Terrorist Organization Designation for Nigeria’s Boko Haram

  1. Alex, the letter was impressive but it wont work.
    State seems to take any association with al-Quaeda as a threat to US security.

    Should the designation happen? No, State is overreaching with this designation. I can’t find anything proving Boko Harem is a threat to the US.

    Why do you think it hasn’t happened sooner? State has been eager to stomp on anyone with a hint of al-Qaeda association.

    What’s most concerning is how this could stop Lagos from negotiating with Boko Harem. Do you believe Jonathan will go with force only, emboldened by the US support?
    Bryan Simpson

    • Bryan, you make some good points here. I agree about the letter though I do not want to undermine the effort.

      I am not sure why it has not happened sooner; it is a good question.

      As for the Jonathan administration, the current trend is that they periodically float the idea of negotiations. I think they might keep doing that even if an FTO designation comes down, though I really don’t know; their decisionmaking processes are opaque to me.

      • Alex, the FTO designation has administrative(restrictions of money trans and immigration) and political(stigmatizing) components. Perhaps State would like to avoid the “stigmatizing” affects of FTO to keep options more flexible for handling BK?

        Would you say once FTO is designated the chance of negotiations are minimized in favor of a security solution?

        The opacity of the Jonathan admin is manyfold with the words of his subordinates. I haven’t heard anything from him directly about negotiations. I don’t quite see the Nigerian’s game on negotiations.

        Also, going further afield than your post, could resisting FTO designation be a benchmark for US foreign policy in scaling back Bush’s very broad definition of War on Terror?
        Bryan Simpson

      • 3riverrunner,

        As I said in an earlier post, you either apply the FTO designation consistently or you discard it. The FTO label must mean something and if it is seen as being subordinate to political/diplomatic considerations, then it loses its potency and the US loses its credibility.

        I mentioned that there is very little qualitative difference between other organisations tagged as “FTOs” and Boko Haram. In fact, one could argue that several organisations tagged as FTOs have much less potential to inflict harm on US interests, have killed far less people and are much less likely destabilise key US allies.

        The US publishes reports on “human rights” and “freedom of expression”. These reports are taken seriously because the same standards are applied across board and individual nations are ranked according to a set of clearly defined metrics.

        In summary, it is better to discard the “FTO” metric than to waste time and expend precious diplomatic capital in endless explanations and political infighting. Nigerians are very intelligent people and they are following the debate within the US.

    • On the contrary, there was absolutely nothing impressive about the letter.

      Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nigerians – Muslims and Christians, and the US government must recognise it as such to maintain its credibility in the eyes of most Nigerians.

      Let me remind you that when Boko Haram struck Kano early this year, most of the victims were Muslim. These people and their relatives will welcome any attempt to cut of funding to Boko Haram or put it under pressure.

      The only people who are wary of an FTO designation for Boko Haram are a few misguided members of the Northern elite. They somehow believe that it diminishes them politically and adds more unwanted political baggage to their 2015 ambitions. Jean Herskovits and John Campbell are friends of these sorts of people – and it is not surprising that they are behind this document.

      1997, the US Government designated the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. If the USG does not apply the same treatment to Boko Haram, they will have to explain why to the Nigerian people.

      Finally, I don’t understand what point you are trying to make with this statement: (the FTO designation will make it) “illegal for nongovernmental organizations to interact with members of Boko Haram – even if the purpose of such contact was to persuade them to renounce violence.” Why isn’t that a consideration with the Taliban or Al Shabab.

      The message that the US is sending is that it will only designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organisation if or when it attacks or attempts to attack US citizens. That is a very dangerous message to send to a nation as complex as Nigeria with both a MUSLIM and CHRISTIAN community (US policy makers tend to forget that Nigeria also has a Christian community).

      Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation. Period.

      • The U.S. doesn’t make its policies based purely on shared religion and we’ve been trying to shake off the image of being a nation that supports Jewish and Christian interests over Muslim ones.

      • You also don’t shake off that image by supporting Muslim interests over Christians and Jewish ones either. You do that by simply doing the right thing, and declaring Boko Haram as an FTO is the right thing to do.

  2. I think the US government should designate Boko Haram as an FTO and get over with it.

    I don’t think it would do US-Nigeria relations any good if the South/Christian population of Nigeria is forced to align with the Republican establishment and the credibility of US academics begins to be questioned by that same community.

    The longer this drama continues, the greater the likelihood of a polarisation within the US foreign policy establishment, with left-leaning think-tanks taking one position and right-leaning think-tanks another.

    We don’t want positions to be entrenched. Already, General Azazi is writing in the “Washington Times”. Contra opinions tend to be published in “left-leaning”, “Mainstream Media” publications like the “New York Times”. John Campbell and Jean Herskovits already have a toxic reputation among the Nigerian Christian / Southern community.

    There is far too much politics attached to the FTO designation and the earlier the US learns how not to insert itself in the internal politics of foreign nations, the better.

  3. The U.S. doesn’t want to get involved in communal politics. What good does it do us if we support the south* if in ten years we get another north-dominated government?

    *Yes Maduka or whatever he’s called now has pointed out the limits of south/north language but it’s the best shorthand we have for a brief conversation.

    • But the US is involved in communal politics in Afghanistan. It is getting involved in communal politics in Nigeria by telling the Nigerian government to “set up a Ministry of Northern Affairs” and suggesting that Nigerians who believe that Boko Haram has something to do with religion are stupid (ask Johnnie Carson).

      Virtually every major World power is engaging Nigeria with respect to Boko Haram carefully and from a distance – the US isn’t. The US has decided to play an activist role – and you can’t play activist without dipping your toes in “communal politics”.

      This silly debate over FTO designation is the surest sign that the US is already involved in communal politics.

      • A question for you: do you want the United States government to call Boko Haram a terrorist organization because you feel that it has political importance and is the right thing to do, or do you want the specific legal consequences of the FTO designation to come into play? I see these as two separate issues; no one, including me, disputes that Boko Haram engages in terrorism, and my understanding is that American officials can publicly decry and condemn acts of terrorism in Nigeria even without an FTO designation. The issue is about the consequences of the FTO designation as a specific legal and political mechanism.

      • I think the US States government should condemn Boko Haram in the strongest possible terms. A question for you – will that include an FTO designation? Can the US condemn Boko Haram in the strongest possible terms without an FTO designation?

        If you look carefully at the “pay market” and at Boko Haram’s “peers” – (Hamas, Indian Mujahadeen, Tamil Tigers etc), they all have the FTO designation. The FTO designation either has to be applied consistently across board or discarded – either decision is fine by me.

        So as long as the FTO classification scheme remains, Boko Haram must designated as such. All arguments against the designation will be rendered useless if we do a step-by-step comparison of Boko Haram with say, the Tamil Tigers.

  4. Alex,

    Still waiting for your promised reaction to Buhari’s “dog and baboon will be soaked in blood speech”. When Ayo Oritsejafor said something much less incendiary, you wasted no time calling him to order. It is almost a week and you (and Carmen McCain) are uncharacteristically quiet.

    The last time Buhari spoke this way (April 2011) at least 11 NYSC members lost their lives (I can provide their names if you so wish).

    • I will put something up on this next week. The delay is not for any sinister reason, but because I’d like to write something on the Northern elite more broadly, and it will take a little time to put together.

      I do not speak for Carmen, you know!

  5. Pingback: Nigeria: A Middle Course on Designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization | Sahel Blog

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