The US Secretary of State has the power to formally designate groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). This document gives the official criteria for and ramifications of such a designation.
In the spring, serious pressure arose to designate Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement an FTO. In April, Republican Representatives Peter King and Patrick Meehan urged the State Department to make the declaration. Opposing such a move was a group of American scholars, who circulated an open letter (.pdf) to Sec. Hillary Clinton in May. Prominent Nigerian voices have been found on both sides of the debate. For example, President Ayo Oritsejafor of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) supports an FTO designation for Boko Haram; Nigerian Ambassador to the United States Professor Adebowale Adefuye opposes it.
In June, the State Department attempted a compromise on the issue by naming three individual Boko Haram leaders, Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar, and Khalid al-Barnawi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The compromise put the issue to rest temporarily, but calls for an FTO designation for the entire group have resurfaced recently both in the US Congress and in the form of a petition among the Nigerian-American diaspora.
I am not a lawyer and nothing I say should be taken as a formal legal argument, but it seems to me that given the breadth and flexibility of the criteria for an FTO designation, any competent lawyer would have little difficulty arguing that Boko Haram meets the criteria. The debate, however, is not taking place on abstract legal grounds, but rather on political grounds. This is appropriate, I would say, because the designation is a political decision that will bring both intended and unintended political consequences.
The scholars who argue against the designation make political arguments:
An FTO designation would internationalize Boko Haram, 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.
As someone who wishes to see peace in Nigeria, I agree with these arguments.
Undoubtedly some will take opposition to the designation as some kind of apology for Boko Haram or partisanship for Northern Nigeria. But for me, making the argument over the designation into a debate over the nature of Boko Haram, or the symbolic value of calling them terrorists, misses the point. At stake in the debate, ultimately, is the question of whether you think the specific legal mechanisms that would be triggered by the designation would help or hurt the effort to end the violence caused by Boko Haram. I think they would hurt, and the letter does a good job of explaining why. If the US government refrains from making the designation, that does not mean Washington does not believe Boko Haram is a serious and tragic problem. It means Washington is choosing other courses of action, and avoiding a decision that could hinder, not advance, the fight. I hope that the State Department will stick with the compromise it made in June, rather than taking what seems likely to be a counterproductive step.