U.S. Policy on Boko Haram

Contributor:  Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
Posted:  03/28/2013  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   nigeria | boko haram

The U.S. State Department, in 2012, contrary to the exhortation of some members of Congress, did not designate Boko Haram, a Nigerian “extremist jihadist” group, as international terrorists. Secretary John Kerry, adhering to the same criteria that existed under his predecessor, should continue this policy. There is no credible evidence tying Boko Haram to the “global jihadist movement” and international terrorist network, as is known of al-Qaida affiliates – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. 

The U.S. should not hasten to make Boko Haram a part of this movement. Perception often trumps reality, and designation would elevate Boko Haram’s status among other extremists as being able to target U.S. interests outside of Nigeria, as well as enhance the group’s capacity to attract recruits and external financial support.  This could have unintended consequences for Nigeria and U.S. interests, as an emboldened Boko Haram may reach beyond its means and get lucky doing so. Disrupting Nigerian oil supplies to the United States could be one such consequence of an ill-advised approach.

While there may be some nervousness about the security of Nigerian oil resources and Nigeria’s capacity to ensure uninterrupted supply to the U.S., Boko Haram’s activities so far do not suggest that the Nigerian government is incapable of securing the industry.  The source of eight percent of U.S. annual oil supply, Nigeria is critical to the United States and, therefore, should have the full support of the U.S. government in dealing with Boko Haram. 

U.S. support to Nigeria should be on terms which serve the mutual interests of both countries, thus the Nigerian government understanding of the threat, and its capacity to deal with it, is important.  The U.S. government should increase cooperation with the Nigerian government to build its security capacity and law enforcement institutional framework to deal with threats to the country’s security, in general. The U.S. should take into account the importance of containing the militant group’s activities to Nigerian territory and not allow it access to the global stage.  Designating Boko Haram as an international terrorist group would be contrary to this objective and not reflective of the group’s lack of capacity to act regionally or internationally. 

Some proponents of designating Boko Haram as an international terrorist group point to the August 2011 attack on United Nations Headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. Such thinking may be justified, lacking understanding of the true nature of the group. In reality, given the group’s limited capacity to act outside its Northern Nigeria operating area, leads one to conclude that the group cannot sustain similar operations elsewhere. The U.S. should avoid awarding al-Qaida a propaganda tool and the perception of a presence it does not have currently in sub-Saharan West Africa. Elevating Boko Haram has the potential to open up opportunities for destabilizing Nigerian society and reversing the democratic advances made so far.  It should be noted, that the UN Security Council President’s statement condemned the bombing of the UN building as “acts of terrorism”, but did not refer to  the perpetrators as “international terrorists”.

U.S. policy should not be determined by this singular attack, albeit against an international organization. The U.S. response should be in keeping with Nigeria’s security needs, and should continue to provide targeted counter-terrorism capacity-building assistance and intelligence to enable Nigeria to protect critical infrastructure – government buildings in Abuja and its oil industry.

Like other local “jihadist” groups, Boko Haram lacks the capability and intent to plan, train for, and execute sophisticated attacks outside of Nigeria, in particular on U.S. territory. The appropriate strategy is to ensure U.S. interests in Nigeria are appropriately protected and a high level of security is maintained around U.S. diplomatic facilities. U.S. intelligence assets, such as the current drone patrol on the Nigeria-Mali border, should be expanded to assist Nigeria’s security force; to build their capacity to monitor Boko Haram’s movements in order to restrict their operational area and ability to strike critical Nigerian targets.

The State Department, by designating three members of Boko Haram’s leadership, rather than the group itself, helps to isolate the group. Boko Haram is less likely to gain support and grow their capacity to operate outside of Nigerian territory. Designation creates criminal penalties for individuals and companies providing material support to these individuals.

The State Department is correct in withholding international designation of Boko Haram as a group, while singling out its leaders for targeted sanctions and possible reprisals.

The Nigerian government has demonstrated in the past its capacity to deal with criminal groups, as in the Niger Delta region. U.S. cooperation with Nigeria on Boko Haram is an opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to work cooperatively with friends in Africa to resolve African problems without exacerbating them. With U.S. targeted assistance, Nigeria can deal with Boko Haram.

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward served for three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee; two years as ambassador on the UN Security Council; and is an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and adjunct professor at Homeland Security Graduate Program, University of the District of Columbia.

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward Contributor:   Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

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