Why Designating Boko Haram as an FTO could be Counterproductive

In recent years, the militant group Boko Haram has increasingly engaged in deadly attacks on civilians. The wave of violence and protests in the Muslim world that have been triggered by the American-made anti-Islam film and the killing of the American ambassador to Libya have heightened concerns that similar violence could spread in parts of Nigeria with broader consequences to the stability of that country and the region. While Nigeria did see peaceful anti-Islam film protests earlier this week, they were not in any way associated with Boko Haram. In fact, recent headlines on the group have actually focused on the Nigerian government’s progress in combating them. As Nigeria continues to advance its fight against Boko Haram, it is important to understand how the U.S. can best aid the government in doing so, which may be less apparent than recent solutions suggest.

Boko Haram means “western education is evil,” or “western civilization is sacrilege” but the actual motivations for the group’s continuation and scale have deeper roots than a dislike of western education and values. Boko Haram and its attacks are concentrated mostly in the northeastern part of Nigeria, an area where the inequality of development taking place in the country is very apparent. The North has higher unemployment than the national average as well as higher rates of poverty: Nearly 72 percent of the population lives under the poverty line [1]. The benefits from the high growth rates experienced by Nigeria—estimated at over 6 percent—are not evident in this region. This kind of inequality is likely spurring increased dissatisfaction with the status quo and helping to increase the numbers of anonymous people acting under the auspices of Boko Haram.

Attacks by the group are generally on domestic targets—security forces, government offices and officials, churches, schools and the media. Yet the anonymity of Boko Haram and its flash mob-like tendencies —which appear to lack traditional patterns of group cohesion and strategy—make it unlike a standard terrorist threat and, consequentially, much more difficult to understand and address.

This past week, the government of Nigeria killed 35 militants and arrested 150 of its members. It also seized a large number of weapons and bombs earlier this month, which according to Reuters included a submachine gun, seven AK-47s, 1,568 rounds of ammunition and 19 homemade bombs. The government attempted to engage in talks with the group last month, though recent events indicate those did not bring about any kind of successful resolutions. And in the wake of anti-film protests in other countries, the government of Nigeria ordered tighter security around its embassies—showing its support for protecting foreign nationals. These moves are evidence of progress in combating Boko Haram, but the lack of clarity on the structure of the group makes it difficult to fully measure the degree to which the government’s efforts are succeeding.

As things currently stand, the situation with Boko Haram is unsustainable for Nigeria and requires additional efforts, but the government seems to be aware of this and making serious progress. Much of what the government is capable of doing in the short term to address the situation is already being done—as shown through increased security measures, raids of weapons and the number of recent arrests. Ongoing mid-term solutions, like continued attempts to engage in talks with Boko Haram, should also be pursued. The long-term solutions, like increasing service delivery to the area and attempting to address the poor economic conditions that are perpetuating feelings of dissatisfaction in the region, must become a focus of the government if real change is going to take place.

There is a great deal of discussion on how the United States can support Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. Nigeria is a strategically important ally of the U.S. in the region and a major trading partner, so it is of great interest to the U.S. to push for greater security. How the U.S. tries to achieve this, however, must be carefully considered. One option currently being discussed is to classify Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Members of the U.S. Congress have presented this idea on multiple occasions this year, but this is likely a much less helpful strategy for addressing the problem than it seems.

Categorizing Boko Haram as an FTO sounds good in theory, but for a number of reasons has many drawbacks with no tangible current benefits. Known members of Boko Haram are already included on the U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, and such individual listings can and should continue to be updated in close consultation with the Nigerian government. Categorizing the entire organization, about which relatively little is actually known, could shift the focus of Boko Haram from a domestic terrorist group to one with international targets, such as U.S. companies and diplomats. It could also help them attract the sympathy of known FTOs with existing anti-U.S. sentiments, with whom it is not clear links currently exist. This move may provoke such engagements if they are not already taking place and would prove detrimental to the region. Plus, FTO categorization could further complicate the North-South divide in the country by making the North feel targeted, which would further inflame the situation and work counter to nation building. The U.S. should not want to promote such deleterious effects through FTO categorization.

In addition, the tools that are available with FTO designation are largely already available to the U.S., including the most important way that it can support Nigeria—through aiding counterterrorism efforts in the region. According to the United States’ foreign assistance dashboard, the fiscal year 2013 request shows no funds directed towards counterterrorism in Nigeria and indicates that the U.S. has not directed any funding to this area since FY 2010 [2]. Since members of Boko Haram appear on the U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, one would expect that the U.S. would be investing in counterterrorism to help Nigeria combat this threat. This is one of the most obvious ways that the U.S. can assist Nigeria in more effectively combating Boko Haram.

While it’s not totally clear, it seems that Boko Haram is a local militant group that is seeking to share in the country’s resources in response to what the group sees as continued marginalization, despite its use of religious camouflage. However, the group’s militant approach is not acceptable and the Nigerian government must continue to neutralize the group’s capacity to impart terror. Nevertheless, long-term solutions lie in a developmental approach that focuses on improved service delivery and job creation. Designating the group as a FTO may be counterproductive.

[1] Adibe, Jideofor (2012). “The North, Revenue Allocation and the Games they Play,” Daily Trust, March 8.

[2] Note: Other foreign assistance categories focused on peace and security, like Stabilization Operations and Security Sector Reform and Conflict Mitigation and Reconciliation have received funding requests for FY2013.