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Is Boko Haram a 'Foreign Terrorist Organization'?

  • Heather Murdock

Burnt newspaper copies are seen in the rubble of a destroyed ThisDay newspaper building in Abuja April 28, 2012.

Burnt newspaper copies are seen in the rubble of a destroyed ThisDay newspaper building in Abuja April 28, 2012.

ABUJA - Some American lawmakers want the U.S. State Department to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization, a formal move that would trigger automatic sanctions against the Islamist militant group. The lawmakers say the Justice Department in Washington supports the designation. However, some Nigerians say this could complicate efforts to negotiate a truce with Boko Haram, and scholars contend it could actually make Boko Haram stronger.

The U.S. State Department maintains a list of "foreign terrorist organizations" that threaten the United States. While the Nigerian group Boko Haram has been linked to many acts in Africa generally considered to be terrorism, is it a threat to the U.S.?

Last week, three U.S. senators introduced a bill that would force the State Department to make a decision, because they feel Boko Haram is “becoming increasingly lethal and forging closer ties to al-Qaida and al-Shabab,” the Islamist militant group in Somalia.

U.S. Senators Scott Brown, Saxby Chambliss and Jim Risch say Boko Haram is a threat both to international and U.S. national security.

Human Rights Watch says the group has killed more than 1,000 people since it began an insurgency against the government in 2009, attacking churches, markets, schools, media houses, government offices and security forces.

The State Department says it is considering the issue. Here in Nigeria, however, many people say that by placing a terrorist label on Boko Haram, the United States could damage the Nigerian government’s ability to restore peace.

University of Abuja senior lecturer Abubakar Umar Kari says some Nigerian government figures favor military action to suppress Boko Haram. However, he thinks authorities in Abuja should be fighting the root cause of the discontent that enables terrorist groups' growth. He says the problem is rooted in poverty.

"I think the U.S. should do well in trying to convince the Nigerian government to address the problem of widespread massive poverty in the north as the first step towards addressing the Boko Haram problem, rather than encourage [Nigeria] to continue in its hawkish posture," he said.

American scholars including former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell say a "terrorist" label by the State Department could raise Boko Haram's international profile and strengthen the group. He adds this could, in turn, increase and intensify abusive tactics by Nigerian security forces and make it harder for the central government to negotiate a truce with Boko Haram.

Hope for negotiations

On the streets of the Nigerian capital, it is hard to find anyone who does not hope for negotiations. Abdulmalik Jega manages a shopping center across from the offices of ThisDay, the newspaper that was bombed a month ago by Boko Haram. Without negotiations, Jega says, the violence will continue.

"Since our security is not adequate and they don’t have the modern basic equipment to fight those terrorists, I don’t think they can fight them without sitting down with them. This war will never end until you sit down and talk to those people. It will never end," said Jega.

Campbell is co-author of a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging a cautious approach to the terrorism designation. The former diplomat says that, unlike other groups on the U.S. list, Boko Haram appears to be fractured, and without clear goals.

If Boko Haram is designated as a foreign terrorist organization and sanctions are imposed, Campbell and his associates warn that thousands of Nigerian-Americans could be deterred from sending money home. Campbell says remittances brought more than $10 billion into Nigeria in 2009 and that the terrorist label itself could make U.S. interests a target for Boko Haram.
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