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.