ALTHOUGH the United States government condemns the activities of the Boko Haram sect, its State Department is concerned that designating the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) may become counter-productive, according to sources close to both US and Nigerian governments.
The situation presents what sources believe is a strategic dilemma for the American Government, which clearly has been offended by attacks carried out by Boko Haram.
In fact, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, remarked late last year that Boko Haram is “absolutely irreconcilable,” yet there are concerns as to what exact measure should be taken to deal with the group.
Nigeria’s government position and insistence that Boko Haram should not be designated an FTO is said to be a further constraint on the US government. That position has now been publicly backed by a group of US scholars, who are engaging the US government on the disadvantages of an FTO listing of the extremist sect.
During the week, top officials of the Nigerian government led by National Security Adviser, General Andrew Owoye Azazi, and Nigeria’s Ambassador to the US, Prof. Ade Adefuye, met with White House and State Department officials.
According to Adefuye, “we made it clear to them at the meetings that we are opposed to such a foreign designation of the group.”
The Ambassador said the Federal Government is able to contain and quell Boko Haram and an FTO will only indicate that the US has taken over, implying that Nigeria is incapable of handling the problem. He recalled that, just as Nigeria contained the militancy in the Niger Delta, it would also contain Boko Haram.
But he added that the meetings during the week also discussed how the US could help Nigeria strengthen regional security in West Africa generally through the ECOWAS, hinting that Nigeria will continue to engage with international assistance in the area of security to deal with Boko Haram without having to abdicate its responsibility to a foreign country.
On the side of the Americans, a clear uncertainty and confusion is apparent as top Republican senators and representatives are insisting on the FTO for Boko Haram just like the Justice Department, which is also an executive arm of the US government.
By US law and practice the State Department is in charge of making an FTO listing, and it does this from time to time. But once the State Department makes such a determination, it falls on the US Justice Department and other executive departments of government like Treasury and Homeland Security to swing into action to implement. At that point State Department may loose it lead in Nigeria-US bilateral relationship.
An FTO designation of Boko Haram could target individuals who are supporting the group, freeze their accounts with links to the US and block their international travels. Any financial transaction between any known Boko Haram member of supporter and a US company would also be outlawed.
But while the US Justice Department is said to be ready to start taking legal steps against Boko Haram, the State Department is certainly reluctant worried that the FTO listing may escalate the violence and in fact further internationalise the activities of the sect.
From the US Defense Department, plans are already in place to implement such an FTO designation in case the decision is reached.
For instance last month, according to a knowledgeable source “the U.S. Special Operations Command organised a three day conference on Boko Haram, which entailed a detailed discussion about possible next steps.”
The source explained however that there is an internal disagreement between officials of the State Department and Defense on who should lead on the matter, since an FTO designation will take the matter away from State Department’s leadership into the hands of other US government agencies like Defense, and Treasury Departments. US scholars who signed a public letter opposing plans to designate Boko Haram with the FTO, argued that State Department has to be in the lead in deciding such a policy and not military officials in Pentagon.
From the White House where the ultimate decision would be taken, sources point to a clear frustration over the issue as top Obama advisers see a clear link between Boko Haram and other international terror groups.
Only last month, Obama’s top Counter Terrorism Adviser, John Brennan said the US government and President Obama are keenly following the gradual emergence of Boko Haram in Nigeria as a terrorist group in the process of aligning with al-Qa’ida.
According to the senior White House official, Presidential Assistant John Brennan at a speech on the US government’s Counterterrorism Strategy one year after the death of Osama bin Laden, it would be a mistake for the American government to think the threat from al Qaida and its seeming affiliates like Boko Haram has passed.
One of the ways the US is keeping its eye on the issue, he disclosed is by monitoring similar groups around the world including in Nigeria.
According to Brennan, the White House Assistant to President Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, “in Nigeria, we are monitoring closely the emergence of Boko Haram, a group that appears to be aligning itself with al-Qa’ida’s violent agenda and is increasingly looking to attack Western interests in Nigeria in addition to Nigerian government targets.”
It is also believed that the US government is under pressure by pro-Northern Nigerian lobbyists who argue that Boko Haram is more of an economic and poverty issue, not requiring a terrorist designation.
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