Nigeria: A Middle Course on Designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

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?

5 thoughts on “Nigeria: A Middle Course on Designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

  1. Alex,
    I have been following BH for about 4 yrs now, do I believe they are connected to AQIM, absolutely. Although I do believe that giving the group the honor or prestige associated with being labeled an international terrorist organization is a bad idea. The Nigerian Gov is more than capable of taking care of the situation if they choose to. Also by applying the label will just boost their ranks and make it more difficult for a government that is friendly to the US to handle their business without souring relationships. With all the issues that Nigeria has from what I have seen and with the people I have worked with there I know that should they want to close the organization down it is well with in their power. But for whatever reason the people in power choose not to deal with in a manner that will send the final blow and end the organization for good.
    Dan

    • I do believe that giving the group the honor or prestige associated with being labeled an international terrorist organization is a bad idea.

      This is a key point, one that I took up in the last post on this topic but forgot to address here. Thanks for weighing in.

    • I don’t agree with Dan. The US government should and must apply the FTO designation to Boko Haram. It will put pressure on political backers (if they exist) to hands off from Boko Haram and lead to a speedy resolution of the crisis.

      The half-hearted response to Boko Haram (singling out three individuals as “terrorists”), merely confirms to non-Northern Muslim Nigerians that the Americans (like the British before them) are biased in favour of Northern Nigeria.

      This perception is as old as Nigeria and the dilly-dallying and tepid response to terrorism in Northern Nigeria merely confirms it.

      You cannot explain to Nigerians why al Shabab is worthy of the FTO designation and Boko Haram is not, without fueling the perception that you are taking sides in Nigeria’s politics.

      And what side has the US government been seen to be taking? Your guess is as good as mine.

    • “But for whatever reason the people in power choose not to deal with in a manner that will send the final blow and end the organization for good.”

      Truth be told, this Boko Haram is not the same as the original. This Boko haram can be anyone ‘claiming’ Boko, all we ever here is ‘suspected’ zero evidence. Furthermore there are big political troubles in Nigeria, within the ruling governing party. Many of whom opposed the current president. Its politics why the president does not want to tackle the issue: it serves his needs, alienating the Northerners/Muslims/Hausa/Fulani in his probable bid for re-election 2015. This is just the start of the drama; sadly it involves people’s lives in the usual divide & conquer fashion supplemented with media propaganda.

  2. Pingback: Analyzing Foreign Influence and Jihadi Networks in Nigeria « al-Wasat – الوسط

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