Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week tweeted out support for efforts to recover the more than two hundred girls kidnapped almost a month ago, saying “We must stand up to terrorism” and using the now ubiquitous #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. But now conservatives are angrily pointing out that she had refused to list the Nigerian group behind the kidnapping as a terrorist organization during her time at the State Department, threatening to turn the latest push against the group into a political football.
That the State Department under Clinton declined to name Boko Haram to a list of terror groups maintained at Foggy Bottom is true. But in making the point, an explosively titled article from the Daily Beast focuses more on the politics of the issue in light of the new interest in Boko Haram, rather than the actual reasoning behind the State Department’s decision. After drawing attention to Clinton’s tweet, the story continues on to note that what the former first lady “didn’t mention was that her own State Department refused to place Boko Haram on the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2011, after the group bombed the U.N. headquarters in Abuja,” quoting named and unnamed Republican sources as the crux of its argument.
But there were multiple valid reasons for the State Department to disagree with the Justice Department and other agencies dealing with counterterrorism — such as the FBI and CIA — who urged State to place Boko Haram on the Foreign Terrorists Organization (FTO) list. “Designation is an important tool, it’s not the only tool,” a former State Department official told the Beast. “There are a lot of other things you can do in counterterrorism that doesn’t require a designation.” This includes boosting development aid to undercut the causes of unrest and deploying the FBI to assist in tracking down Boko Haram, both of which the U.S. actually did.
In addition, Clinton didn’t act in a vacuum to determine not to designate Boko Haram back in 2011. Scholars on Twitter who focus on the region, terrorism broadly, and Islamist groups in particular were quick to point out that not only were there few benefits and many possible costs to designation, many of them had argued against listing Boko Haram several years ago. In a letter to the State Department dated May 2012, twenty prominent African studies scholars wrote Clinton to implore her to hold off on placing Boko Haram on the FTO list. Acknowledging the violence Boko Haram had perpetrated, the academics argued that “an FTO designation would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long term strategy, and undermine the U.S. Government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.”
The Nigerian government also wasn’t exactly clamoring for U.S. assistance against Boko Haram back in 2011. At the time, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad — the actual full name of the group commonly called Boko Haram — was a threat only within Nigeria. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson described the group in 2012 testimony to the Senate as “not monolithic or homogenous” and “composed of several groups that remain primarily focused on discrediting the Nigerian government.”
“As Boko Haram is focused primarily on local Nigerian issues and actors, they respond principally to political and security developments within Nigeria,” Carson went on to say. In speaking with the Daily Beast, he defended that analysis: “There always has been a reluctance to accept our analysis of what the drivers causing the problems in the North and there is sometimes a rejection of the assistance that is offered to them.” And though the group has become more radicalized as the years have gone on, committing more and more atrocious crimes and latching further onto extremist Islamic ideology, the strategy of seeking to discredit the Nigerian government appears to still be the case even in the recent kidnapping of the three hundred girls kidnapped last month.
The U.S. government also wasn’t exactly ignoring the presence of Boko Haram as a source of violence in Nigeria. In June 2012, with Clinton still at the helm at Foggy Bottom, the State Department designated Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and several others with ties to the organization as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” That designation made the individuals’ “property interests subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with or for the benefit of these individuals.” Shekau is now infamous for producing a nearly hour long video in which he took credit for the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria.
Conservative media has latched onto the narrative as more evidence that the Hillary Clinton that they’ve railed against as the cause of the Obama administration’s supposed cover-up of the Benghazi tragedy is the real Hillary. Articles aggregating the Beast’s piece appear at The Blaze, the Daily Caller, and National Review, all in similarly condemnatory terms. And if giving a preview of what’s to come, CNN host and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tweeted: “Congress should hold hearings on why Clinton State Dept refused to tell truth about radical Islamist Boko Haram in Nigeria.”
The State Department did finally name Boko Haram to the FTO list in 2013, when it became clear that the arguments against designating the group were no longer enough to prevent their addition and under pressure from lawmakers who were preparing to legislatively force the administration to do just that. In doing so, however, State — now under the leadership of John Kerry — took care to implore Nigeria that more needed to be done to combat Boko Haram aside from just military action.
“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 read.