By Ambassador Curtis Ward
The Obama Administration has taken steps to create a new dynamic in U.S –Nigeria relations, by designating Boko Haram and Ansaru (a 2012 splinter group from BH) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). These designations were announced by the U.S. State Department on November 13, 2013, acting, in consultation with the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments, under authorities provided in Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, and Section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224, respectively. Simultaneously, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) placed Boko Haram and Ansaru on its Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) List.
These designations prohibit anyone from “knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with Boko Haram and Ansaru, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organizations” that are found in the U.S., or later come into the U.S., or into the control of U.S. persons (individual or corporate).
The FTO and SDGT designations will assist U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments to collaborate with counter-terrorism partners to investigate and prosecute terrorist suspects associated with Boko Haram and Ansaru. The Justice Department, employing a number of statutes, has successfully investigated and prosecuted individuals in the U.S. for providing material support and resources to terrorists and FTOs. In light of these designations, it is conceivable that if either Boko Haram or Ansaru currently has sympathizers or supporters in the U.S., the FBI may soon come knocking. This includes charitable organizations that may directly or indirectly provide material support to these Nigerian terrorists groups.
According to briefings and statements by State Department officials, the Obama Administration’s future policy towards Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram and Ansaru rests on Nigeria adopting a comprehensive – a holistic – approach to dealing with the terrorist threat from these groups. Such approach must be balanced between security and law enforcement, and deal with the “regional socioeconomic disparities” in Northern Nigeria, which, as premised, has contributed to radicalization and recruitment to these extremist groups. Further underpinning U.S. partnership with, and support to the Nigerian Government is “the importance of protecting civilians, adhering to the rule of law, and respecting human rights.” Officials in the U.S. Government have criticized the “heavy-handed” approach employed by Nigeria in response to the terrorist acts of these groups.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in reference to the approach which should be pursued by the Nigerian Government, stated: “The government needs to not only stop Boko Haram’s attacks, but address longstanding grievances of law-abiding northern Nigerians about government corruption and unfairness that attracts disaffected youth to Boko Haram.” The disparities between education and employment opportunities for the Northern youth cohort vis-à-vis the rest of Nigeria have been cited by U.S. government officials as fostering radicalization and as a major attraction of Northern Nigerian youth to the terrorist groups. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s observations were in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations and Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade) on November 13, 2013.
According to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. is committed to assist Nigeria strengthen its law enforcement capabilities with the objective of “an integrated civilian-security-focused strategy” to respond to Boko Haram and Ansaru while adhering to the rule of law and that which ensures accountability for those who operate outside of these rules and violate the human rights of civilians in the process. Specifically, “Nigeria must protect civilians, guarantee human rights, and ensure accountability in instances where government officials and security forces violate these rights.” She further expressed concern about “reports that some Nigeria security forces have committed gross human rights violations in response to Boko Haram.” The ambassador’s statement can be interpreted as a strong indictment, or at best criticism, of the current approaches of the Nigerian Government toward the terrorist groups. These public statements may also be the Obama Administration’s way of responding to criticisms by human rights groups, while pressuring Nigeria.
Understandably, the Nigerian Government, though welcoming U.S. partnership in dealing with the terrorist threats, may be less appreciative of the public statements of U.S. officials critical of Nigeria’s military and law enforcement efforts so far against Boko Haram and Ansaru. The U.S. is keen, however, on assuring the Nigerian Government that, in designating these extremist groups, the U.S. intends that these actions be seen as supporting Nigeria’s fight against extremism and jihadists in Northern Nigeria. U.S. officials also point out that, despite past hesitation to designate Boko Haram as an FTO, the dynamics in the region have changed. Thus, following an extensive process of review and research, including consultations with the Nigerian Government, the U.S. has now decided on the FTO designations.
In a special off-the-record briefing, senior administration officials, on November 13, revealed, specifically, that Boko Haram is linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and pointed to the thousands of deaths against civilian population in Northern Nigeria, as reasons for designating the group an FTO. It is also noted that U.S. intelligence assessment is that AQIM has helped provide training and some financing to both extremist groups in Northern Nigeria. There now appears to be greater certainty on the part of the U.S. of Boko Haram’s link to AQIM, in contrast to earlier less specific references to “reports” in the past that such links existed. In what appears somewhat contradictory, in light of the new designations, the official U.S. position is that Boko Haram and Ansaru remain primarily Nigerian organizations, as opposed to being international terrorist organizations; the difference now is the intelligence conclusion that these violent extremist groups have links to AQIM, a core al-Qaida affiliate. The groups operate locally, but have international connections and resources.
The new designations allow the Obama Administration to employ additional resources to assist the Nigerian Government deal with these terrorist groups. Accordingly, the U.S. will continue to work with the Nigerian Government “to enhance security force professionalism… to improve Nigeria’s forensics and investigative capacity, and to strengthen (Nigeria’s) criminal justice system.” These collaborative efforts are to be undertaken within the context of “protecting civilians in a manner that ensures that human rights are protected and respected.” The FTO and SDGT designations could be a catalyst for a new level of U.S. security enhancement engagement in the region. Expect more U.S. resources to become available to these programs.
Already, the U.S. through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) provides counterterrorism capacity building assistance to military and law enforcement in the Sahel and Maghreb regions. With Nigeria already an active participant in TSCTP, the U.S. is likely to step up its ongoing training and equipping of Nigerian law enforcement units, and strengthening of its anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing programs. Assisting Nigeria to deal with non-military aspects of countering radicalization in Northern Nigeria should also benefit significantly from these designations. The U.S. in June 2013 placed a bounty on Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau of up to $7 million for information leading to his location. By placing Boko Haram’s leader under the Rewards for Justice Program, he is now regarded as a “most wanted” terrorist, thus putting him in the U.S. cross hairs.
While these actions are in keeping with U.S. global efforts against terrorist groups which have the potential to, or are engaged in transnational acts of terrorism, or is linked to al-Qaida in any way, it is also true that the U.S. government views Nigeria as an important economic partner to the United States. Hence, Nigeria’s security and stability has added importance to the U.S. Notably, Nigeria is the second largest African destination for U.S. foreign direct investment, and provides approximately eight percent of U.S. oil imports. Nigeria has also been a major stabilizing force in Africa through its major contribution of UN peacekeeping forces. This acknowledgement of Nigeria’s role in Africa is consistent with past statements by top U.S. Government officials; and this strategic level of cooperation and collaboration between the U.S. and Nigeria is in keeping with the mutual security and economic interests of both countries.