John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Why NOT to Designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

by John Campbell
May 24, 2012

Smoke rises from the police headquarters as people run for safety after Boko Haram bomb blasts in Nigeria's northern city of Kano January 20, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


Asch Harwood coauthored this post. Asch is the Africa research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A group of Nigeria watchers, including myself, has sent the secretary of state a letter urging that northeastern Nigeria’s “Boko Haram” not be given a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation.

Boko Haram is different from other FTOs, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Tamil Tigers, which have an organizational structure and a unified goal. Boko Haram is a highly diffuse movement with little, if any, central organization. In fact, the name “Boko Haram” is a label applied only by the Nigerian government, press, and security services, usually to describe the violence occurring (daily) in the north of the country. Most watchers agree that this violence is perpetrated by a myriad of actors, including former followers of the murdered preacher Mohammed Yusuf as well as criminal and other elements.

The uniting feature of Boko Haram is its focus on Nigeria. Its rhetoric does not include international jihadist themes. With the isolated exception of the UN headquarters bombing in Abuja, which is viewed in Nigeria as a collaborator with the Nigerian government, its targets have all been Nigerian, usually police, military, places of worship, and drinking establishments. Notably, most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslim.

An FTO designation potentially discourages political solutions, which are needed most. Given the current animosity between the government and the north, third party intermediaries—such as Nigerian or international NGOS—are likely to be necessary. An FTO designation would inhibit their involvement.

The financial implications of designations could also impact on foreign remittances, which accounted for almost $10 billion in foreign exchange in 2009. In the words of our recently published letter, “thousands of Nigerian-Americans would face fear of prosecution for sending money home and, as a result, many transactions would be at best delayed or, worse, ended, compounding the suffering of their Nigerian families.”

Conversely, it may encourage the Nigerian government’s current, unsuccessful security-centric approach, which has included the arbitrary arrest and occasional killing of Nigerians, and progressively alienated the northern population.

FTO designation could also have the perverse consequences of enhancing the prestige of Boko Haram and promoting its consolidation. For example, it could lead to, in the minds of northern Nigerians, a closer association between Washington and Abuja, making the United States a legitimate target. It could also increase the incentives for globally focused terrorist groups to seek deeper linkages with groups in the North.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by IK

    “Notably, most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslim” the article reads.
    Jim, are you implying that Boko Haram activities only amount to terrorism if the victims are Christians or non-muslims? So Boko Haram killing muslims do not amount to terrorism? Are Al Qaeda bombs exploding in Iraq not killing muslims?
    Your article, and others, I read on this thread has the basic assumption that the “Muslim North” is supportive of the Boko Haram. And you still argue that they are the major victims. How can the victim be so supportive of the same group that have killed them in their hundreds? I doubt that Boko Haram enjoys popular support in the North as you would want us believe. Are you telling me that if America comes out against Boko Haram the long suffering “victims” in the North will not be happy?
    Secondly you and Ambassador John are always talking of an Abuja government hated in the North. The hatred is across the length and breadth of Nigeria and not just in the North. The corruption at Nigeria’s centre makes it loathed by all Nigerians who suffer the consequences of government mismanagement.
    The articles that appear here are very shallow and tend to have a committed line of thought that will never change even in the face of new evidence. The majority of the North may not have voted for Jonathan (am from the south and I didn’t vote him either. I voted for Buhari from the North) but they also know that their problems are not down to Jonathan but the corrupt elite from all parts of Nigeria including the North. Their anger is not at Jonathan but the Abuja and state Governments that have impoverished the whole country, and worst experienced in the North. Even if a “Northerner” is the president their anger will not recede. Hunger does not recede unless satisfied with food.
    There is nothing that is happening in the North that is not happening in the South. The exponential growth of churches in the 1990s and 2000s in the South was the South’s response to the hopelessness in the country. The North’s own was the rise of radical/fundamentalist Islamic sects. The only difference is that fundamentalist Islam is violent unlike fundamentalist Christianity that is more pacifying. The embrace of religion to cope with frustration was and remains the only way many poor Nigerians make a sense of daily existence.
    I think you need more social science education and also education on “Nigerian studies” to actually have a grasp of the issues at play in Nigeria.

  • Posted by Chavuka

    1. When the US isn’t busy invading Arab/Muslim countries it classifies nations according various categories (press freedom, ease of doing business etc.).

    2. When classification schemes are introduced, they should be consistently applied across board. South Africa shouldn’t be given a special exemption from ranking on say, corruption/transparency simply because the Zulu population would be annoyed if South Africa is so tagged.

    3. Boko Haram meets all the criteria for classification as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and if John Campbell is suggesting that “political considerations” should inform the decision to grant Boko Haram a special exemption, let it be known that John Campbell and his fellow scholars are perfectly happy for the US to play “politics” over the graves of thousands of Nigerians.

    4. I have absolutely no problems with the US doing away with the “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” classification scheme, but since it is still being used, it must be applied consistently across board. The choice here is simple: either you discard the “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” classification scheme entirely or you classify Boko Haram as one, either action is fine by me.

    If Boko Haram gets a special exemption, be rest assured that America’s prestige in the eyes of many Nigerians will proceed on a steady, irreversible decline.

    4. What exactly does the US stand for? Does the US stand on principle or only on political expediency? What if Boko Haram attacks US targets tomorrow? Will the US then explain to the Nigerian people that the “FTO” designation only applies when American lives are at stake?

    5. The “legal requirement” for designation as an FTO (not drawn up by myself or any Nigerian is):

    “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.”

    I think Boko Haram meets those criteria to the letter. There is no consideration as to whether the organisation has “an organizational structure and a unified goal”.

    (The Lord’s Resistance Army (which is on the list), does not have a “unified goal” and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is just as “diffuse” as Boko Haram.)

    6. In summary, the US has three choices: (a) discard the entire FTO business (b) redefine the criteria so that Boko Haram gets a free pass or (c) classify Boko Haram as a “foreign terrorist organisation” using already existing criteria.

    The earlier the US makes up its mind on which of these three options to pick from, the better for both the US Government, the American people, the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian people.

    Let me also remind readers on this blog that Nigeria also has a large Christian community and the US is not best served by bending over backwards to appease special interests in the Muslim community.

    In circumstances like this, it is better to be firm, fair and even-handed or to shut-up. (Given that the US has a very difficult time minding its own business and loves to interfere in the internal affairs of foreign nations, the second option isn’t a possibility).

  • Posted by gedyged

    It is not exactly true that most people killed by Boko Haram are Muslims. There is a clear pattern of targeted killings. I do not believe that Boko Haram has bombed any Mosques. When Muslims are killed it is usually that the bomber had been chased out of their intended location and in panic the bomb gets detonated in another location or that the Muslims killed were trying to prevent the bombing, or talk sense to the planners and thus became targets. Being in the North, the chances of this random act wound then involves a Northerner who is usually Muslim.
    How does the writer intend to solve the Boko Haram problem? Ignore it so it can expand?

  • Posted by femi

    Al shabaab’s focus is primarily domestic yet it is designated a foreign terrorist organisation .Boko haram has a chain of command ,its goal is simple; the establishment of an islamic caliphate jn a secular state .
    This brought it into confrontation with the state security structure
    It has targeted western interest.
    The reason they remain faceless is because they do not have any common grounds for negotiation with an infidel government
    This is Nigerias long war and to advocate appeasement, as so called Nigerian watchers, seems to be proposing is to surrender the sovereignity of the state .
    Other criminal groups that have exploited the emergence of this group can be tackled long term with proper governance and development in all parts of Nigeria, the rule of law and social justice
    the primary salafist group however must be crushed

  • Posted by Chavuka


    Former and current ambassadors only have a feel for what the elite wants or thinks. This is due to the fact that they only tend to interact with the Nigerian elite.

    In John Campbell’s case, he has a clear view of what the Northern elite wants and their line of thinking. Though he knows that the Northern masses exist, he hasn’t had meaningful interaction with them, so he is simply projecting the views of the Northern elite onto the Northern masses.

    That is wrong.

    In the case of other scholars, scholars only know what they want to know. No scholar, no matter how good he or she is, can know “what he or she does not want to know”.

    The problem with these people is the framework they adopt in analyzing an extremely complex, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation like Nigeria. They have initial “assumptions” and these initial assumptions never change.

    Three of the most damaging “assumptions” are that Northern Nigerian Muslims are reflexively anti-American and they are too uninformed to understand the importance of using all necessary tools to deal with the menace of Boko Haram.

    The second “assumption” is to wildly overestimate the levels of support for Boko Haram among Nigeria’s Northern Muslim community and the third “assumption” is that the Christian community in the North/Middle Belt does not exist and even if it does, it does not matter or count for anything.

    An event occurred a few months ago, and it proved all those “assumptions” wrong. British Special Forces stormed a terrorist haven in Sokoto (the heart of Northern Nigeria). This is the FIRST TIME such an event has occurred in Nigeria since independence.

    In response there wasn’t any violent reaction against the British (who have even an even more extensive and visible presence in Northern Nigeria), because the Northern Nigerian Muslim community UNDERSTANDS that TERRORISM is a scourge that has to be dealt with appropriately.

  • Posted by Ajao BH

    Naming boko haram a FTO is important if it will stop the bloodshed but if it will not it is not important.

  • Posted by NAAB

    With the latest attacks of Boko Haram, we at NAAB(NIGERIANS AGAINST THE ACTIVITIES OF BOKO HARAM) would like you to show solidarity and join the movement that will bring an end to the activities of Boko Haram.

    Join the forum on Facebook

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