State Department Downplayed Boko Haram's Religious Motivation Even as President Obama Said Otherwise

The kidnapping of 300 young girls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram has once again brought the issue of radical Islam to the forefront of public debate. The group repsonsible, Boko Haram, unambiguously declared war on Western Civilization in 2009. But as recently as 2012, the U.S. State Department was still claiming religion was not the “driving extremist violence” in the country.

After their radical leader was killed, Boko Haram declared war
on Western Civilization and promised to “Islamise” the entire
country. A statement by the group was published in August 2009 made clear the group’s political/religious goals for the country.

1) That we have started a Jihad in Nigeria which no force on earth
can stop. The aim is to Islamise Nigeria and ensure the rule of the
majority Muslims in the country. We will teach Nigeria a lesson, a very
bitter one.

2) That from the Month of August, we shall carry out series of
bombing in Southern and Northern Nigerian cities, beginning with Lagos,
Ibadan, Enugu and Port Harcourt. The bombing will not stop until Sharia
and Western Civilisation is wiped off from Nigeria. We will not stop
until these evil cities are tuned into ashes.

3) That we shall make the country ungovernable, kill and eliminate
irresponsible political leaders of all leanings, hunt and gun down those
who oppose the rule of Sharia in Nigeria and ensure that the infidel
does not go unpunished.

The list does go on to promise a “corruption free” government “where security will be guaranteed.” However the emphasis is clearly on Islam as a political solution to these problems. The group has frequently been referred to as the Nigerian Taliban.

And Boko Haram has followed through on its threats. Between 2009 and 2012 it launched “160 separate attacks, resulting in the death of over 1000 people and internal displacement of hundred
others.” Starting in 2011, some of those attacks included suicide bombings, a first in Nigeria. In August 2011, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle through the gate at the United Nation’s building and blew himself up. The blast killed 21 and injured 60 more.

A few months later a House Subcommittee on Homeland Security published a report signed by Chairman Meehan (a Republican) and Ranking Member Speier (a Democrat). The document rehearsed the history of Boko Haram and strongly encouraged the State Department to consider listing them as a terrorist organization. From the report:

Based on Boko Haram’s evolution and recent public warnings by the U.S. State Department to U.S. citizens in Nigeria, Boko Haram may meet the legal criteria for State Department FTO designation. Such designations are subject to a rigorous statutory process and through investigation, which the State Department needs to initiate. If Boko Haram were to be designated an FTO, it would support U.S. Intelligence Community efforts to curb the group’s financing, stigmatize and isolate it internationally, heighten public awareness and knowledge, and signal to other governments the United States takes the threat from Boko Haram seriously.

But the State Department refused to act on this bipartisan recommendations even as the FBI, CIA and Justice Department urged them to do so. 

According to Josh Rogin’s report for the Daily Beast, the chief opponent to designating Boko Haram a terrorist organization came from Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson. Carson believed the threat of Boko Haram needed to be addressed in “socio-economic” terms. In March 2012, he testified before Congress saying, “The Nigerian government must effectively engage communities vulnerable to extremist violence by addressing the underlying political and socio-economic problems in the North.” He went on to add “It is important to note that religion is not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria.” Carson echoed these remarks in a speech given in April 2012.

Nigerian officials should focus on the political environment that makes Boko Haram so dangerous. By demonstrating the benefits a pluralistic society has to offer, the government can deny Boko Haram and other extremists the ability to exploit ethnic and religious differences.

Carson went on to say “I want to stress that religion is not driving
extremist violence either in Jos or northern Nigeria.”

Assistant Secretary Carson’s view appears to have only partly been shared by President Obama. During a visit to South Africa in June 2013, the President took questions from a town hall style audience including a question about extremist groups from a woman in Nigeria. After mentioning Boko Haram, Obama answered, “It is my strong belief that terrorism is more likely to emerge and take root where countries are not delivering for their people.”

But Obama went on to state the obvious saying, “We would love nothing more than for Africa, collectively, to say no to extremism, to say no to terrorism, to say no to sectarianism which in the case of Boko Haram for example is an example of essentially religious rationale for this kind of violence…”

The State Department finally designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013. Speaking of this two-year delay, Rep. Meehan told Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast, “They were saying al Qaeda was on the run and our argument was contrary
to that.”


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