This spring, legislators, the Justice Department, and others in Washington urged the administration of President Barack Obama to designate the Nigerian rebel movement Boko Haram a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). For now, the administration is taking a middle course:
The U.S. government is expected to formally apply a “foreign terrorist” label on Thursday to three alleged leading figures of the violent Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, officials said.
The action by the State and Treasury departments follows growing pressure on the Obama Administration to take stronger action against Boko Haram. The group, which says it wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria, has stepped up attacks on Christian places of worship this year.
Thursday’s anticipated action, officials said, involves applying the “terrorist” designation to three men presumed to be central figures in the group.
The three individuals, an official said, are Abubakar Shekau, aged around 43, described as a Boko Haram leader who allegedly aligned himself with al Qaeda in a video message; Abubakar Adam Kambar, aged roughly 35; and Khalid al Barnawi, aged approximately 36. All three are native Nigerians.
The expected action will freeze any assets they have in the United States, and bar U.S. persons from any transactions with them.
It is among the first such action the U.S. government has taken against Boko Haram, but falls short of demands from some U.S. lawmakers and the Justice Department to designate the entire group as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
This decision seems likely to put the issue, which resonates very little on the US domestic scene in any event, to rest for at least a few months; the administration can tell proponents of the FTO designation that it has already done something and that it is continuing to monitor the situation. And critics of the FTO designation for Boko Haram will likely be less critical of this move, although one of those critics’ main concerns was that legal labels could impede eventual negotiations with Boko Haram. That concern that (from what I can tell) is still relevant to this designation, but not as relevant. The Nigerian government and non-governmental organizations retain much room to maneuver; they would not necessarily have to talk directly to Shekau in order to hold negotiations.
Finally – and I should say that I only use open source information – I have to say that the name “Khalid al Barnawi” seems remarkably vague to me. Al Barnawi is the Arabic adjective corresponding to “Borno,” the Northeastern Nigerian state where Boko Haram is strongest (Borno was also the name of a precolonial empire in the region). “Khalid al Barnawi” is the rough equivalent, then, of something like “Bob from Maine.” It could well be a pseudonym, and I imagine counterterrorism officials are quite used to dealing with people with pseudonyms or with extremely common names. But it’s still odd to me to see a name like that on the list.
What do you think of how the administration is handling the situation?