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:
- It must be a foreign organization.
- 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.
- 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?