Evidence of a connection between al-Qaeda and Boko Haram “keeps mounting” and yet the State Department continues to defer designation, Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) executive director Laolu Akande said on Thursday.
“U.S. military chiefs have always said they suspected that Boko Haram has links to al-Qaeda,” he said. “Here is further proof that there are links, growing links,” between the two.
Citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, the Daily Beast reported Wednesday that the closure of U.S. missions in the Middle East and Africa was prompted by an intercepted conference call involving al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and representatives of the group’s affiliates across the globe, including Boko Haram.
The claim adds weight to the view that the group, which has declared a “jihad” against Christians in Africa’s most-populous country, is part of a wider network of Islamist terror.
In a speech in Washington in June last year, then-U.S. Africa Command commander Gen. Carter Ham spoke of troubling indications that Boko Haram and al-Qaeda affiliates in north and east Africa – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab – were “seeking to co-ordinate and synchronize their efforts,” and said they may be sharing funds, training and explosive materials.
For several years the State Department has resisted calls to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
Speaking by phone, Akande said many Nigerians were puzzled at the apparent reluctance, noting that a report commissioned by the State Department last year confirmed how dangerous the group is.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland named Boko Haram among the top five most active terror groups in the world during the previous year.
“We cannot understand why the State Department is dragging its feet in calling this group exactly what they are,” he said. “It’s quite incredible.”
Akande said FTO designation would “send an unambiguous, categorical message to supporters of terrorism, in Nigeria and outside Nigeria, that the U.S. will no longer handle this matter with kid gloves.”
It would also give the U.S. the ability to track and stop funding and the movement of arms to Boko Haram, since “these people use RPGs, AK47s, and these things move across the border [into Nigeria].”
In the past, the Nigerian government has itself been leery about FTO designation, citing concerns that it would embolden Boko Haram by elevating its terrorist status, may subject Nigerian travelers to increased scrutiny by U.S. immigration officials, and could also lead to U.S. drone strikes in Nigeria.
But in early June President Goodluck Jonathan himself proscribed Boko Haram, under legislation that provides for a minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment for anyone who “knowingly, in any manner, directly or indirectly, solicits or renders support for the commission of an act of terrorism or to a terrorist group.”
Asked about the move, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time the administration respected the decision and “condemns Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in the strongest terms.”
She noted that the U.S. has designated Boko Haram individuals but had no comment on “further deliberations” regarding FTO status.
Akande said CANAN is working with sympathetic members of Congress “to keep the issue on the front burner – so that the U.S government knows we are not going to keep quiet until they do exactly what is right regarding the designation of Boko Haram.”
A bill reintroduced in the Senate last January by Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) would require the State Department to report on whether Boko Haram meets the criteria for FTO designation, and if not, to give detailed reasons for the decision. Earlier initiatives in the House and Senate did not advance.
In a speech in Washington late last month Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) president Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor said that around 70 percent of all Christians killed violently worldwide last year were in northern Nigeria.
“Every week I get a text message – a church burnt or a pastor was murdered or Christians were randomly rounded up on a roadside and summarily executed,” he said.
Oritsejafor expressed regret about the FTO delay, saying a debate over the issue was “a needless one” that should have been over a long time ago.
Scale, intensity of attacks increasing
A new report this week by the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s prosecutor cited evidence that Boko Haram is responsible for crimes against humanity and persecution, particularly targeting Nigerian Christians.
Since 2009 it had carried out attacks responsible for killing more than 1,200 people, and the “scale and intensity of the attacks have increased over time,” it said.
“In the past two years, Boko Haram has shown signs of transitioning into a globalized Salafi-jihadi group and has attracted international attention in particular by launching suicide attacks,” the report stated.
“The attacks have been committed pursuant to the policy defined at the leadership level of Boko Haram, which aims at imposing an exclusively Islamic system of government in northern Nigeria at the expense of Christians specifically.”
About 50 percent of Nigeria’s population of 150 million are Muslim, while Christians make up about 40 percent and the remainder hold indigenous beliefs.
In an audio message released in 2003 al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden named Nigeria as one of six “most qualified regions for liberation” by Islamic warriors (the others were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan.) He called on Muslims in the six countries to take steps “to establish the rule of Allah on earth.”