But the administration faced calls to do so for almost two years before the decision was announced last fall.
“I think it’s important to note that last year, we designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization and specifically designated global terrorists, which effectively cuts the organization off from U.S. financial institutions and enables banks to freeze assets here in the United States,” Carney told a press briefing.
Administration officials never fully explained why the decision took so long, beyond citing “an extensive process of review and research to determine the effectiveness” of the FTO designation.
But over the 20 months between a first written appeal by Republican lawmakers in March 2012 and the announcement in Nov. 2013, State Department officials at times argued that the jihadist group was driven more by local grievances than a violent Islamist ideology.
In fact Boko Haram has made no secret of its jihadist ideology, declaring war on Nigerian Christians, campaigning against “Western” – that is, non-Islamic – education and demanding shari’a across the country. In August 2012 it demanded that President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, convert to Islam or resign.
Three weeks ago it abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from a secondary school in a predominantly Christian town in Nigeria’s far northeast. In a rambling video message laden with Islamic rhetoric, its leader on Monday described the captured girls as “slaves” and threatened to sell them, as “Allah has commanded me.”
Testifying before a Senate panel in March 2012 then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said Boko Haram “attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.” He added, “It is important to note that religion is not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria.”
At a Center for Strategic and International Studies event the following month, Carson repeated the assertion: “I want to take this opportunity to stress one key point, and that is that religion is not driving extremist violence either in Jos or northern Nigeria.” (Jos, a central city that roughly straddles Nigeria’s Muslim-Christian divide, has seen periodic spates of violence, including a Boko Haram church bombing on Christmas Day 2011.)
Asked in June 2012 about the possibility of FTO listing, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Boko Haram “a loosely constructed group attached to trying to address grievances in the north. There are different views within the group, and we’re continuing to look at that.”
She also said the U.S. was encouraging Nigeria’s government to “begin a real dialogue about some of the roots of the dissatisfaction in the north, which are primarily economic.”
As an international outcry over the schoolgirl abductions has grown, the administration has indicated that the U.S. is willing to help the Nigerian government rescue the girls, but officials have not pointed to any specific assistance being considered.
“Why can’t you give us specific details on what assistance you either are providing or are offering?” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked during Monday’s press briefing.
“Because we’re going to keep working with the Nigerians privately on that,” she replied, but added when asked that she did not anticipate any military assets would be provided.
Long road to FTO listing
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), to qualify as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a group must be based outside the U.S., be involved in terrorist activity, and must pose a threat to American nationals or to the national security (defined as national defense, foreign relations or economic interests) of the U.S.
The question of Boko Haram being listed as an FTO arose in late 2011, when the House Homeland Security Committee released a bipartisan report entitled “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland.”
The following March, the then-Committee Chairman, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), and another senior member, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), wrote to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, citing that report and urging immediate FTO designation.
King and Meehan made a second appeal two months later, again to no avail. Meehan then introduced legislation that would require the State Department to report on whether Boko Haram meets the criteria for FTO designation, and if not give detailed reasons for the decision.
In June 2012, the administration named three Boko Haram leaders, Shekau among them, under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.
King and Meehan called the move insufficient: “The legal ramifications of this designation only affect dealings with three designated individuals, and not the wider Boko Haram organization, which is growing in intent, capability and targeting capacity.”
It would take another 17 months before the FTO decision was announced on Nov. 13, 2013, when both Boko Haram and a splinter group, Ansaru, were listed.
In a background briefing that day, a senior State Department official attributed the time taken to “an extensive process of review and research.”
Nigeria’s government initially opposed FTO designation – citing concerns of possible drone strikes and increased security difficulties for Nigerians traveling to the U.S. – but it later relented, and last June Jonathan outlawed Boko Haram.
The Immigration and Nationality Act does not require the administration to take a foreign government’s views into account when mulling FTO decisions.