The U.S. government has finally designated Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In July, the Clarion Project started a petition to label the group as such. The State Department also designated Ansaru, a Boko Haram offshoot, as foreign terrorists.
“Boko Haram is a Nigeria-based militant group with links to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that is responsible for thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria over the last several years including targeted killings of civilians,” the State Department said, making the announcement.
Notice the timeframe mentioned by the State Department: “Several years.” For “several years” — during both the Bush and Obama Administrations — the U.S. government resisted designating Boko Haram as a terrorist group, even though it fits every definition of one and threatens the West.
Three top Boko Haram officials were blacklisted as terrorists by the U.S. government in June 2012, but the Obama Administration dragged its feet in designating the group entirely. This was due to a complete misreading of Boko Haram’s ideology and an apparently desire to keep the “War on Terror” as narrow as possible.
In May, President Obama gave a speech where he emphasized that “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.
In that speech, the administration narrowed the conflict by focusing almost solely on Al-Qaeda and its partners, to the point where Vice President Biden said the Taliban is not the enemy. Now, President Obama is trying to narrow it to just certain Al-Qaeda supporters.
Shortly after that speech, President Obama incorrectly stated that Boko Haram is fueled by poverty, ineffective governance and disenfranchisement. To him, it was an example of what happens when “countries are not delivering for their people and where there sources of conflict and underlining frustrations that have not been adequately dealt with.”
Boko Haram has consistently and unapologetically said its goal is to create an Islamic state. It has never said its objective is better social services or policy changes. Its name means "Western education is sinfull." This has been a point of frustration for Faith McDonnell, the Director of Religious Liberty programs for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
“The State Department has been of the opinion that the Nigerian military has dealt too harshly with the group, committing human rights violations, and that the poverty and disenfranchisement of Northern Muslims leads to their recruitment in Boko Haram,” she told the Clarion Project.
A simple review of the situation in Nigeria debunks this thinking.
McDonnell observes, “The reality is that in Nigeria’s northern states, under the imposition of Sharia, it is the Christians who are impoverished and disenfranchised.”
Churches are a favorite target of Boko Haram terrorists, resulting in some calling Nigeria the most dangerous country in the world for Christians. Despite their persecution, Christians aren’t attacking schools or committing acts of terror.
Boko Haram is a product of the Islamist ideology; not political gripes or poverty. This fundamental misreading is why, until now, you could technically be a Boko Haram member in the U.S. without being arrested. And it is also why the U.S. has failed to mount an effective ideological strategy.
This Al-Qaeda affiliate has been around since 2002. It is almost 2014 and only now is it illegal under U.S. law to provide material support to Boko Haram and the Ansaru splinter group.
There are three requirements a group must meet to qualify as a Foreign Terrorist Organization: It must be based outside the U.S.; it must be involved in terrorist activity and it must threaten Americans.
By any measure, Boko Haram meets the first two requirements. The administration’s reluctance to designate Boko Haram must have been based in the idea that the group doesn’t threaten Americans, even though it’s affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Yet, the Long War Journal has documented how Boko Haram has publicly threatened America.
In May 2011, documents retrieved from the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan showed that Boko Haram communicates with the top leadership of Al-Qaeda.
In November 2012, Boko Haram’s leader pledged to wage jihad against “the Jews and the Crusader Christians” and preached, “O America, die with your fury.” He also said his group supports jihad in Muslim countries like Afghanistan where the target is U.S. soldiers.
In August, Boko Haram’s leaders were on a secret Al-Qaeda conference call to plan upcoming attacks.
Even if Boko Haram did not publicly threaten the U.S. or work with Al-Qaeda, its Islamist agenda to implement sharia is still be a threat to American national security.
It is imperative that Americans ask why it took so long to designate Boko Haram.
Either the Bush and Obama Administrations honestly did not understand the group, or they did not want to provoke it into targeting America.
Ignorance or appeasement?
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.