The State Department on Wednesday officially designated Nigerian group Boko Haram to the official list of foreign terrorist organizations, triggering a string of U.S. actions designed to prevent assistance from reaching the deadly fighters that make up its ranks.
CNN first reported the pending designation to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list on Tuesday night, along with the decision to also list an off-shoot group known as Ansaru as well. According to the report, the choice to place the group which has reportedly killed more than 3,000 in Nigeria did not come without some debate. “The administration faced intense pressure from Congress and some officials to list the group,” CNN wrote, “but other officials and experts warned it did not pose a threat to the United States, but that Washington could become a target as a result of the designation.”
The fact that the State Department has chosen to go ahead with the listing places Boko Haram in the company of infamous terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo. The designation also sets off a string of actions that the United States can now take against Boko Haram including freezing assets, imposing travel bans on known members and affiliates, and prohibiting Americans from offering material support to the group. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was listed on the State Department’s separate Specially Designated Global Terrorists list in 2012.
Boko Haram — whose name roughly translates to “western education is sinful” and has referred to itself as the “Nigerian Taliban” — has been a thorn in the side of the Nigerian government since 2009. Since then, the group has drawn international attention for their attacks on Christian churches and against schoolchildren. The group has also been blamed for attacks on health workers attempting to end polio in Nigeria, the country with the most outbreaks in the world.
The actions Nigeria has taken in the name of fighting Boko Haram, however, have not been entirely in line with human rights standards around the world. In the most recent offensive, the Nigerian military killed scores of men who were suspected of being allied with the terrorist group, but without certainty. Amnesty International in October declared that they had received evidence of at least 900 deaths of people in military custody in just the first half of 2013. “The evidence we’ve gathered suggests that hundreds of people died in military custody in 2013 alone. This is a staggeringly high figure that requires urgent action by the Nigerian government,” said Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.
The State Department seemed aware of the troubling actions of the Nigerian government when issuing their statement announcing the designation on Wednesday morning. “These designations are an important and appropriate step, but only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government to counter these groups through a combination of law enforcement, political, and development efforts, as well as military engagement, to help root out violent extremism while also addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria,” the State Department statement reads.
While Ansaru is a much newer splinter group of Boko Haram, the State Department also lists it as a threat to Western targets. “In November 2012, Ansaru raided a police station in Abuja, killing Nigerian police officers and freeing detained terrorists from prison,” the statement says. “Also in January 2013, Ansaru attacked Nigerian security services when its members ambushed a convoy of Nigerian peacekeepers. Ansaru has also conducted several kidnappings of foreigners living or working in Nigeria.”