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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- In its first legal action against the northern Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, the U.S. State Department Thursday designated three of the group’s alleged leaders to its global terrorism list.
The move will freeze any U.S.-based assets held by Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi and forbids any U.S. individuals or companies from engaging in transactions that would benefit the three individuals in any way.
While Shekau was “the most visible leader” of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad – Boko Haram’s official name – al-Barnawi and Kambar have “close links to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) which has already been designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”, the State Department said in a release.
“These designations demonstrate the United States’ resolve in diminishing the capacity of Boko Haram to execute violent attacks,” the release stated, noting that more than 1,000 people have been killed by alleged members or associates of Boko Haram in the past 18 months.
The designations come amid reports of escalating violence allegedly perpetrated by Boko Haram against a variety of targets, including Christian churches and federal government facilities, primarily in the northern and central regions of Nigeria.
The latest wave of attacks, in which at least 50 people were killed, took place Sunday against three churches in Zaria and Kaduna, setting off retaliatory raids by Christian groups.
A delicate issue
Nigeria, the dominant power in West Africa and the oil- and gas-rich Gulf of Guinea, provides the United States with about eight percent of its total oil imports, making it Washington’s biggest trading partner on the African continent.
It is also one of only three sub-Saharan African countries – along with South Africa and Angola, another major oil exporter – with which the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has established high-level bi-national commissions.
While security in the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria has long dominated U.S. concerns about the country’s stability, the emergence of Boko Haram, whose name has been translated as “Western education is sacrilege”, in the predominantly northern region of the country has sparked growing concern, particularly in the Pentagon and its nearly five-year-old Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
In his first visit to Nigeria as AFRICOM commander in August 2011, General Carter Ham charged that the group had made contacts with AQIM and that it was conceivable that those two groups could form a “loose” partnership with Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, another group tied to Al Qaeda that has, however, been in retreat over the last several months.
Just ten days after Ham’s visit, Boko Haram took responsibility for a suicide attack on the U.N. compound in the capital, Abuja, killing at least 23 people in what was its first assault on a foreign target. An attack on a Catholic church on Christmas day of that year was followed by a series of attacks that killed more than 180 people in Kano on January 20.
Since then, a growing number of lawmakers – mainly Republican – on Capitol Hill have called for putting Boko Haram on the State Department’s terrorism list. The action could presumably require banks handling remittances to Nigeria and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide development or humanitarian assistance to groups active in northern Nigeria, in particular, to come under greater scrutiny.
Curtailing America’s foreign policy options
In May, two dozen U.S.-Nigeria scholars and analysts wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which they warned against listing Boko Haram as a “foreign terrorist organisation” primarily because it would “limit American policy options to those least likely to work”.
Such a blanket designation, they wrote, would “internationalise Boko Haram’s standing and enhance its status among radical organisations elsewhere”. They noted that despite its claims of contacts with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, “Boko Haram overwhelmingly remains a domestic problem.”
Moreover, such a listing would also “give disproportionate attention to counter-terrorism in bilateral relations at a time when economic ties are expanding and a robust multi-faceted relationship has emerged”.
They added that in April, U.S. Special Operations Command held a three-day conference on Boko Haram, suggesting to some observers that the Pentagon was usurping the State Department’s authority to direct bilateral ties.
Such a designation would further risk militarising the conflict with Boko Haram in a country with a history of both authoritarian military rule and serious abuses by security forces of human rights.
The authors noted that the extrajudicial execution by security forces of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, “was immediately followed by Boko Haram’s radicalisation, splintering, and increased propensity for large-scale violence”.
Since then, police repression may have further radicalised the group and helped it recruit new members from northern Nigeria’s increasingly marginalised Muslim population.
Contacted by IPS Thursday, several signers of the letter expressed some relief that the State Department designated the three individuals, rather than Boko Haram as a whole.
“In the best of all possible words, nothing would’ve been done, but there is growing concern [about Boko Haram] both on Capitol Hill and among the larger American public, particularly in light of the attacks on churches which are now taking place almost every Sunday,” said John Campbell, a veteran diplomat and Nigeria specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Campbell noted that the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson had opposed designating the entire group as terrorist when its representatives met with their U.S. counterparts last month. “All of this has led to the sense that the American government has to do something.”
“I think it’s far better that the administration singled out three individuals than designate all of Boko Haram,” he added, noting that the group was highly diffuse.
“From what I’ve seen, this designation makes good sense,” said Peter Lewis, another signatory who heads the Africa Studies programme at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) here. “If we can identify individuals who are…directly organising and sponsoring terrorist activity, then they should be targeted by sanctions and legally designated as terrorists.”
“I don’t think this will endanger the possibility of dialogue,” Lewis said. “It’s a fairly large and diverse network, and there may be elements with whom dialogue is possible and who may be willing to put down their arms for some kind amnesty or other inducement,” he told IPS.
“The most counter-productive strategy would be to porohibit all contact with any elements of the organisation, because this would rule out any negotiations, dialogue, or back-channel discussions that could reduce the violence,” Lewis added.
Campbell warned that much depended on how Thursday’s action would be interpreted in Nigeria itself, particularly in the predominantly Muslim north, Boko Haram’s stronghold.
“Screaming headlines that the U.S. government condemns Boko Haram could be very misleading,” he said.