On March 18, 2014, National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with governors from Nigeria to explore, among other topics, how the U.S. can work together with the state governments in Nigeria to address the insurgency of Boko Haram an Islamist terrorist organization. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry designated Boko Haram (also known as the Nigerian Taliban) and a related splinter group, Ansaru, as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations (“FTO”) and Specially Designated Global Terrorists (“SDGT”) on November 14, 2013. As a result of these designations, Boko Haram’s assets will be frozen if they are or come within U.S. jurisdiction, and U.S. persons (i.e., U.S. citizens and permanent residents, persons physically present in the U.S., and entities organized under the laws of the United States) are broadly prohibited from engaging in any transaction or dealing with this group. The U.K. similarly designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization in July 2013, making membership in and support for the group a criminal offense in the U.K.
What’s so interesting? Although many other foreign organizations have been designated as an FTO and/or SGDT, Boko Haram was, for many years, considered primarily a domestic terrorist group in Nigeria whose principal aim was to overthrow the current Nigerian government and replace it with a regime based on Islamic law. However, growing evidence of the group’s ties to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (“AQIM”) and Somalia’s al Shabaab organization, an increase in attacks on international and U.N. targets, and Nigeria’s growing economic ties to the United States prompted calls from certain members of Congress and others to designate and impose sanctions on the group.
U.S. nexus. In order to be designated as an FTO or SDGT, a group must present some threat to U.S. national security (or U.S. nationals) or to U.S. foreign policy or economic interests. In making his designation of Boko Haram, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly stated that Boko Haram “committed, or poses a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.” Indeed, in a briefing regarding the designation, senior Administration officials noted that there is a large American population and “a lot of U.S. investment” in Nigeria. As such, “threats to Nigeria automatically impact U.S. economic and American Citizen interests.” A report issued by the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence in December 2011 emphasized similar points, concluding that “Boko Haram has quickly evolved and poses an emerging threat to U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland.”
U.S.-Nigeria collaboration. Public statements by Administration officials also suggest that the designation of Boko Haram is intended to help Nigeria succeed in adopting a comprehensive approach to address its domestic terror threat. The U.S. has good reason to be interested in Nigeria’s long-term stability. In Congressional testimony in early 2012, State Department officials emphasized that the U.S. and Nigeria have developed close ties, noting that Nigeria is one of the top five suppliers of oil to the U.S., and that Nigeria’s economy represents an important market for U.S. goods. Nigeria, as Africa’s most populous country, is also a strategic partner of the United States, which the Administration would like to see “fulfill its ambitions to be a regional and global leader.” As one Administration official put it, “the United States seeks to help Nigerians strengthen the country’s governance, delivery of quality basic services, and trade.” Helping Nigeria to combat extremist violence appears to be one way the Administration is seeking to accomplish this. Indeed, in addition to the meeting with National Security Advisor Rice on March 18 which was intended to develop additional areas where the U.S. government could support Nigeria in the battle against terrorists, recent reports suggest that the U.S. will be assisting Nigeria in standing up a new Nigerian Army Special Operations Command (NASOC) to help combat terrorism in the region. For its part, the Nigerian government has welcomed the designation of Boko Haram, expressing the hope that such designation would facilitate cooperation between Nigeria and the U.S. to end the Boko Haram insurgency. So far, however, these efforts do not appear to have dampened Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria. In the last month alone, Boko Haram has carried out a rash of brutal attacks, including a car bombing which killed 100 civilians and an attack in which 45 boys were slaughtered at a state-run boarding school. It remains to be seen whether the cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria to combat the activities of Boko Haram will stem the tide of these attacks.