John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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The United States Designates Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

by John Campbell
November 14, 2013

A woman sits amongst the burnt ruins of the Bama Market, which was destroyed by gunmen in last Thursday's attack, in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria April 29, 2013. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


On November 13, the White House announced that the United States had formally designated Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists. This comes after a heated debate within the Obama administration and among Nigeria watchers that began in earnest after the 2011 suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja, for which Boko Haram claimed credit.

On the surface, both groups fall under the “terrorist” label. Boko Haram and Ansaru use terrorism to fight the Nigerian state. This has escalated in recent months as they specifically targeted civilians and youths. They have on multiple occasions attacked schools during session, killing students and teachers indiscriminately before burning down the buildings. They have erected check points on the roads and, dressed as military officers, pulled drivers from their cars and hacked them to death. They have set off bombs in crowded markets and bus terminals, sometimes killing over a hundred in a single incident; their atrocities are undeniable.

On June 3, 2013 the U.S. Department of Treasury, under its “Rewards for Justice” program, designated Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, as an individual terrorist and set a reward of U.S. $7 million for information leading to his location. As for the Nigerian government, President Jonathan officially designated Boko Haram and Ansaru as terrorist organizations in June 2013, when he instituted a state of emergency in three northeastern states of the country.

The arguments against Boko Haram and Ansaru being designated as U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations have not changed throughout the debate. A summary of them can be found here. The bottom line is that the designation has little practical effect and may reduce the scope for a future official or non-official U.S. role in some future political resolution.

If the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation is essentially a political statement without much practical consequence, it does seem to indicate a closer alignment between Abuja and Washington. In recent weeks, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Amnesty International have reported on Abuja government and security forces’ atrocities against the predominately Muslim population in the northeast. That the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation appears to be unaccompanied by an equivalent denunciation of government human rights abuses could increase the animosity felt by many in the North toward the United States, which is widely believed to be engaged in a war on Islam.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    Deborah Shettima is distraught. Boko Haram gunmen shot her husband in front of her and abducted two of her daughters – then aged 7 and 9. She hasn’t seen her daughters since then.

    To add insult to her injuries, Boko Haram came around later and asked her whether “she had converted to Islam yet”. She said no, they then killed her only son in front of her.

    If that isn’t terrorism or a terrorist organisation, what is?

    A few weeks ago, on the highway between Kano and Maiduguri, Boko Haram gunmen stopped motorists on the road asking them for their identification cards. Those with Christian sounding names were be-headed (with chain saws), others with Muslim sounding names and with government issued identification cards were also given the same treatment.

    Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during the Second World War. At great personal risk to himself, he saved many Jewish from certain death. That same type of moral courage is totally absent from either the Obama administration or US diplomats or US scholars.

    As a Nigerian, I can tell you we are very unimpressed by the meaningless sophistry “of the argument against naming Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization”. We can very easily deduce that the United States of America has decided to sit on the fence on Boko Haram – after all, no US citizens have been harmed, yet.

    There was a time when US diplomats and scholars exhibited moral courage, a time when they saw evil and denounced evil in the most stringent terms – not merely producing a torrent of meaningless twaddle about “poverty, alienation & economic deprivation” – leaving the most important, immediate issues unresolved. Generating more heat than light, more questions than answers, more “analysis” than solutions.

    Walter Carrington stood up to the Abacha regime at great risk to his life. Contemporary US diplomats and scholars neither have his moral clarity nor his courage.

    On September 11, 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were leveled by Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Nobody had time for the nonsense of “poverty and alienation was responsible for the Taliban which gave a safe refuge to Al Qaeda”.

    In Nigeria’s time under the terrorist threat, the United States of America has decided to look away.

    The rise of vigilante groups in the North East indicates that locals are getting fed up with the menace of Boko Haram. America’s lack of moral clarity is even more glaring.

    Nigerians will never forget this – we now know the true nature of our American “fair weather” friends.

  • Posted by Chike

    “If the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation is essentially a political statement without much practical consequence ….”

    Okay, what has “non-designation” achieved so far? This fear of “closer alignment between Washington an Abuja”, what is it supposed to achieve? Keep up the pretense that Washington and Abuja don’t share strategic interests.

    I still maintain that people like John Campbell have boxed themselves into a corner over this “non-designation of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation”. It almost appears like they have nothing else useful to contribute to the fight against Boko Haram.

    And mark my words, it is a fight.

  • Posted by Johnson

    When I think of the Boko Haram, I don’t get a perception that they are ‘pushed-to-the-wall’ political agents, who desperately want change in the country. The imagery that comes to my mind is just what they themselves project: cowardly criminals who gloat over the gruelsome murder of children, teenagers, and women. I see a people who act without regard for social advancement, integration or tolerance. They represent everything we don’t want to see anymore in Nigeria. Any one who watches breaking news on Boko Haram activities knows what I’ve described here.

    What sort of political arrangement could stop these serial killers and give them a good heart overnight? What sort of dialogue can do that? Let’s see. One that hands over surviving children and women to the control of these killers, and subjugates them to unthinkable laws that mandate public flogging and essentially denies them access to proper education? Does this help Nigeria’s security and development? Does this help our human rights record to improve? Will a deal with the Boko Haram help us get closer to the MDGs?

    Nigeria needs all the help it can get to destroy this group- whether such help is a simple rhetoric, a symbol, a demo, or a game changer, we need them all.

    In dealing with terrorism, we need more than special joint training sessions with American forces, and a few minutes of dialogue with these terrorist elements. We have to keep terror out of the minds of the people by showing that even the international community is willing to help us stop this thing. One of such pointer is found in the U.S decision to tag the group what it really is: a terrorist organization.

  • Posted by Jim Sanders

    Several counterintuitive perspectives merit consideration. First, financial capital does not appear to be as important to Boko Haram as social capital, even though very little is known about this. Despite atrocities against the innocent, the group’s durability suggests a degree of grassroots support. Second, foreign CT aid to the government of Nigeria may well worsen the problem because Boko Haram is likely to interpret it as US support for Nigeria’s corrupt patronage system, which the insurgents believe has beggared the North for years. Third, the government of Nigeria, as a national government, cannot cope effectively with a phenomenon such as Boko Haram because it is so remote from daily life. Boko Haram is closer to the lives of ordinary Nigerians. The future of politics in Nigeria probably favors grassroots groups more than the national government or conventional political parties. Fourth, new digital technology is not likely to facilitate democracy as much as it is likely to make politics more chaotic. Part of Boko Haram’s success has to do with its willingness to fall back on old technology. In sum, the world has changed in ways that favor grassroots activism of various kinds. However, foreign policy approaches remain centered on top-down remedies administered and evaluated by elites.

  • Posted by Chike

    Jim Sanders,

    Agreed, but the question is simple – has the non-designation of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the United States of America over the past three succeeded in producing any tangible improvement to the situation in North Eastern Nigeria?

    Sometime ago, the United States declared the leaders of Boko Haram as “global terrorists”, but stopped short of designating the organisation as a “foreign terrorist organisation”. That was as useful as Pontius Pilate “washing his hands off” the death of Christ.

    So how else is the US supposed to relate with Nigeria if not through official governmental channels? Assuming that Boko Haram has “social capital” in Northern Nigeria – what about the Taliban in Afghanistan or Al Qaeda in Iraq – didn’t these organisations have “social capital”?

    It is extremely painful to read tedious sophist arguments in favour of ……………… essentially doing nothing to solve Nigeria’s pressing issues with Islamist terrorism.

    And we know the minute a US citizen is killed by Boko Haram, these meaningless, tedious, sophist arguments will be thrown out of the window.

  • Posted by Chike

    Dear Ambassador Campbell,

    This isn’t directly related to the subject of this blog post.

    I’ve read your blog for a while & I’m generally impressed with it, but I’m a little bit worried about the trajectory of your thought patterns and your policy recommendations.

    I need to ask you this question – are you seeking better relations between the Muslim community of Northern Nigeria and the United States – or are you seeking better relations between ALL communities in Nigeria and United States.

    A community (yes it exists) that you and many other US diplomats and analysts tend to overlook is the Christian community in Northern Nigeria. There is very little in this blog that suggest that much thought has been devoted to:

    1. The response of that community to Boko Haram violence – since the usual canards of “poverty, alienation and economic deprivation” don’t apply here. Christians in Northern Nigeria are just as poor and as economically deprived as Muslims, and in many cases, even more “alienated”.

    2. The interaction between Northern Christians and their coreligionists in the South. There’s nothing to suggest that America’s tepid, lukewarm and not very carefully considered response to Boko Haram has done much to endear this community the United States.

    There also seems to be some difficulty seeing Nigeria in context (the bigger picture) or exploring the links between different communities in Nigeria. For example, how does Boko Haram impact on the relationship between the South and the North, what are the implications for US?

    What about the significant Igbo population in Northern Nigeria? How has Boko Haram affected perceptions, what impact will that have on the 2015 elections? What about the “Middle Belt”, has the advent of Boko Haram led to a “hardening” of positions – does this have political implications – does this have implications on US/Nigeria relationships?

    I also went through your recommendations of dealing with the economic disparity between the North and the South. But you must understand that the bulk of the money to be spent in the North will have to come from the Niger Delta – and the Niger Delta has SERIOUS problems of its own.

    I haven’t also seen a careful analysis of the problem in Northern Nigeria – i.e. who is responsible for what. You talk about “Abuja losing the support of the streets in the North”, but does Abuja have the primary responsibility for delivering healthcare, running local governments and primary education? No, that is the job of local administrators in Northern Nigeria.

    I haven’t seen any discussion here on Northern Nigeria’s STRUCTURAL issues, on how the “Lugardian system” (discouragement of formal education, indirect rule via emirs & Shari’a law) is yet to be dismantled. This is a MAJOR reason why the far North lags behind the South (and increasingly the Middle Belt) in human capital development indices.

    For a first timer to Nigerian politics you present a general introduction, although I think you skew it too much in the direction of a “mythical Northern Nigeria” that no longer exists.

    I think readers should be presented with better context and better understanding of the links between different ethnic communities. I will give you an example – during the First Republic political upheavals in the South West led to a coup by mainly Igbo Army officers which led a counter coup by Northern Army officers. This resulted in the massacre of about 30,000 Igbos – which led to a bloody civil war.

    It is extremely important for us to understand that communities are linked in Nigeria. That a US outreach to the Muslim community in Northern Nigeria that doesn’t consider the Christian community or other communities in Nigeria is not complete – and might even be counterproductive.

    And I’m sorry to say this, that sounds like what you’ve been advocating.

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