Nigeria’s Most Sadistic Killers: Why Is Boko Haram Not Designated a Terrorist Group?

Boko Haram has been accused of crimes against humanity, but is still not considered a terrorist group by the State Department. Eli Lake reports.

Sunday Aghaeze / Getty Images

The group is one of the deadliest organizations in Africa, accused of killing at least 1,500 people between June 2009 and September 2012. Its victims are the cops, Christians, and those Muslims it sees as betraying the true faith. It is alleged to sabotage oil pipelines, take down automated teller machines, and rip up telephone lines in a violent jihad against the West.

These rogues comprise a little known group operating in Nigeria known as Boko Haram. This week, clashes intensified between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, as the government claimed credit for killing the group’s spokesman. Meanwhile, a series of explosions rocked the northern city of Maiduguri—attacks that are alleged to be the work of Boko Haram, whose name translates into “Western education is a sin.”

Last week, Human Rights Watch accused Boko Haram of crimes against humanity, saying the group is responsible for 815 deaths in 2012 alone. One might think an organization with that kind of track record would be designated a terrorist organization. Groups with far less blood on their hands have been so designated by the State Department. But for now, Boko Haram does not join al Qaeda, Hizbullah, and other groups that have used mass murder to advance an extreme, fanatic version of Islam.

“By all standards they ought to be designated as terrorists. It’s obvious, everyone calls them a terrorist organization, then to officially not designate them as one, it’s strange,” said Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

Pastor Ayo, as he is known, said even Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, in testimony before Congress earlier this year, called Boko Haram “terrorists.” In his testimony (PDF), Carson said the U.S. designated three Boko Harum leaders as “global terrorists” but also said, “The truth is that our understanding [of the group] is limited at best.” In the hearing he acknowledged Boko Haram had emerged as a terrorist organization.

The designation has serious implications. If Boko Haram is designated a terrorist group, then it would be illegal for any American citizen to provide cash or material support to the organization. The U.S. government also would have the authority to deport any member of Boko Haram residing in the United States, and banks would be obliged to freeze any assets of the group that they hold.

Earlier this summer, Jason Small, the deputy director of the Office of West African Affairs, told The Daily Beast that a terrorist designation of Boko Haram could be perceived by the Nigerian government as an excuse to focus on counterterrorism in the Muslim-majority northern part of the country at the expense of a more comprehensive political approach.

“We are very concerned about how the designation would be received in northern Nigeria. We continue to make a strong case with the government; there are legitimate grievances people have in the northern states, they need to have a comprehensive government response, a more professionalized security response,” Small said.

Nigeria needs effective law enforcement. Earlier this month, local police failed to stop a mob from burning alive four students at the University of Port Harcourt in the Aluu community in Ikwerre. The website Sahara Reporters reported Monday that the official local police statement found the four students were murdered before they arrived and could not repel the angry mob even if they had arrived in time. The lynching was at the order of Alhaji Hassan Walewa, the leader of the local Omukiri community, who accused the students of being thieves, and then encouraged the mob kill them.

Boko Haram has condemned the lynching, which gained national prominence after a web video surfaced of the gruesome act.

Small said the State Department abhors the violence attributed to Boko Haram. “We certainly condemn all the violence in Nigeria, whether Christians are victims or Muslims are victims or any Nigerian, it’s a problem for all Nigerians. Our efforts are to support Nigeria as a whole in finding a peaceful solution to this continued violence.”

Pastor Ayo said he wished the Nigerian government would do more to counter Boko Haram, but he also conceded the government’s recent offensive is a good start. The Christian leader noted that Nigerian government officials also have publicly come out against a U.S. terror designation for Boko Haram.

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“They say it will affect Nigerians when they travel,” Pastor Ayo said. “But we already have problems when we travel for many reasons. There are other groups designated as terrorists from countries where people from those countries travel freely. This should not be an excuse.”