from Africa in Transition

Why NOT to Designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

May 24, 2012

Blog Post

Asch Harwood coauthored this post. Asch is the Africa research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A group of Nigeria watchers, including myself, has sent the secretary of state a letter urging that northeastern Nigeria’s “Boko Haram” not be given a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation.

Boko Haram is different from other FTOs, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Tamil Tigers, which have an organizational structure and a unified goal. Boko Haram is a highly diffuse movement with little, if any, central organization. In fact, the name “Boko Haram” is a label applied only by the Nigerian government, press, and security services, usually to describe the violence occurring (daily) in the north of the country. Most watchers agree that this violence is perpetrated by a myriad of actors, including former followers of the murdered preacher Mohammed Yusuf as well as criminal and other elements.

The uniting feature of Boko Haram is its focus on Nigeria. Its rhetoric does not include international jihadist themes. With the isolated exception of the UN headquarters bombing in Abuja, which is viewed in Nigeria as a collaborator with the Nigerian government, its targets have all been Nigerian, usually police, military, places of worship, and drinking establishments. Notably, most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslim.

An FTO designation potentially discourages political solutions, which are needed most. Given the current animosity between the government and the north, third party intermediaries—such as Nigerian or international NGOS—are likely to be necessary. An FTO designation would inhibit their involvement.

The financial implications of designations could also impact on foreign remittances, which accounted for almost $10 billion in foreign exchange in 2009. In the words of our recently published letter, “thousands of Nigerian-Americans would face fear of prosecution for sending money home and, as a result, many transactions would be at best delayed or, worse, ended, compounding the suffering of their Nigerian families."

Conversely, it may encourage the Nigerian government’s current, unsuccessful security-centric approach, which has included the arbitrary arrest and occasional killing of Nigerians, and progressively alienated the northern population.

FTO designation could also have the perverse consequences of enhancing the prestige of Boko Haram and promoting its consolidation. For example, it could lead to, in the minds of northern Nigerians, a closer association between Washington and Abuja, making the United States a legitimate target. It could also increase the incentives for globally focused terrorist groups to seek deeper linkages with groups in the North.