On May 21, 2012, over 20 U.S.-based experts on Nigeria sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her not to formally list Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). “We believe that an FTO designation for Boko Haram would limit American policy options to those least likely to work,” the letter said.

And they are right. Listing Boko Haram will not make America safer or improve the conditions on the ground in Nigeria. Instead, a formal  terrorist label would deter the Nigerian government from pursuing reforms in the north, and prohibit American and international efforts to restore peace and respond to the needs of Nigerians affected by the violence.
Designating Boko Haram as an FTO would make it illegal for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to interact with it, even if the purpose of such contact was to persuade them to renounce violence or to permit humanitarian assistance to civilians living in places they control. To learn how U.S. law punishes vulnerable populations living in places where a terrorist group operates, see the Charity and Security Network’s report, “Deadly Combination: Disaster Conflict and the U.S. Material Support Law).
So, who is calling for the FTO listing?
Not the Nigerian government. Several high ranking Nigerian officials, including the Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S., met with White House officials in mid May and reportedly voiced their opposition to imposing a FTO label. Nigerian Defense Minister Bello Halliru Mohammed said, “We are looking at a dialogue to establish the grievances of the Boko Haram. I think the attempt to declare them an international terrorist organization will not be helpful.”
Not Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson. Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in March, he emphasized that Boko Haram is a “loosely organized group…focused on discrediting the Nigerian government” rather than religious extremism.
Not independent experts. Elizabeth Donnelly, the Africa Program Manager at Chatham House, wrote on the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) website that, “[O]vert and overly interventionist involvement by international partners could worsen the problem: conferring upon Boko Haram an international profile that it does not – at least thus far – warrant and thereby motivating it to up its game.”
Asch Harwood, an Africa research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a signatory of the letter to Clinton, said on CFR’s blog, listing the group could in fact “have the perverse consequences of enhancing the prestige of Boko Haram” by linking Washington and the Nigerian government, “making the United States a legitimate target.”
Some members of Congress, however, are calling for the immediate listing of the group responsible for killing over 300 people in northern Nigeria in 2011. On May 24, Sens. Scott Brown (R-MA), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced the Boko Haram Designation Act of 2012, which, if passed, would require the State Department to determine if the group meets the criteria to be listed as a FTO. In the House, Reps. Peter King (R-NY) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA), also wrote a letter to Clinton saying, “designating Boko Haram an FTO is essential to giving our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the legal authorities to deter individuals who might be providing support to Boko Haram in the U.S. and abroad, and freeze any known Boko Haram assets.”
Morgan Roach at the Heritage Foundation would probably not object to a FTO label, but she offers several alternative options that would constrain Boko Haram, including:
  • “Partner with Nigeria’s federal, state, and local governments in the north to address standards of development. Abuja’s failure to address economic and societal conditions has created a resentful population vulnerable to Islamic extremism. Improving such conditions will assist in legitimizing the federal government in the north.
  • Establish a consular office in northern Nigeria. A U.S. diplomatic presence would provide improved access to information collection and assist in engaging a society that is far removed from the south.
  • Urge the Nigerian government to practice restraint in its use of military force. The mistreatment of innocent civilians is counterproductive and results in unintended consequences.
  • Hold the Nigerian government accountable for misuse of funding for counterterrorism and military training. Considering Nigeria’s endemic corruption, the Administration should implement measures to track U.S. assistance carefully.”
All of these actions could be implemented right away and do not require listing the group. However, once a FTO listing is made, some of these options become prohibited.  Why limit what tools we have?
When asked what the timeline for a decision is, a State Department official told Reuters that adding a group to the sanctions list is a “rigorous process which has to stand up in a court of law.”
I just hope it stands up to the common sense test.30