As we learn from Josh Rogin's story in the Daily Beast, Hillary Clinton's State Department decided not to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization. I don't know the reason for this. I do know that the State Department under John Kerry reversed that decision in November 2013. So if a terrorism designation is such a huge deal, why is Boko Haram operating with impunity now? Why didn't the change of designation in the U.S. make any difference?
Maybe a small detail buried in Rogin's story is a partial explanation:
Had Clinton designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization, that wouldn't have authorized any increased assistance to the Nigerian security forces; such assistance is complicated by the Leahy Law, a provision that prevents the U.S. from giving weapons to foreign military and police units guilty of human rights violations.That's an odd, muted way of introducing the fact that the Nigerian government under President Goodluck Jonathan is a human rights violator, as we learn from those dangerous radicals at ... um, the Council on Foreign Relations:
Until now the Nigerian government's approach to Boko Haram has been to mount an anti-terrorism campaign against it. Rather than use political methods to "win the hearts and minds" of the [poorer] northern population, it has relied on military force to counter Boko Haram's violence with violence. This "counter terrorism" has not worked. Boko Haram's human rights violations have been documented by credible human rights groups. More disturbing has been the extensive documentation of human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military and other state agencies while engaging in their “counter terrorism” policy.Actually, the report linked in that quote (PDF) documents abuses by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. On the government's side, there's this:
Nigeria's government has responded with a heavy hand to the Boko Haram violence. Government security forces, comprising military, police, and intelligence personnel, known as the Joint Military Task Force (JTF), have been implicated in serious human rights violations....The Clinton State Department did designate three leaders of Boko Haram as terrorists in June 2012 (a fact also downplayed in the Rogin story); the department's belief at that time seemed to be that Boko Haram as a whole shouldn't be placed on the terrorist list because it had different factions, some of them focused exclusively on Nigeria (which would mean they weren't involved in terrorist activity or planning against the West) and some focused outward. That was a belief expressed by the Nigerian government at the time. The government opposed designation of the group as a terrorist organization:
During raids in communities, often in the aftermath of Boko Haram attacks, members of the security forces have executed men in front of their families; arbitrarily arrested or beaten members of the community; burned houses, shops, and cars; stolen money while searching homes; and, in at least one case documented by Human Rights Watch, raped a woman. Government security agencies routinely hold suspects incommunicado without charge or trial in secret detention facilities and have subjected detainees to torture or other physical abuse.
In July 2009, at the outset of the violence, the police and soldiers in Maiduguri carried out scores of extrajudicial killings of detainees -- many of them committed execution-style -- according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Since then security personnel have detained suspects at several military and police facilities in Maiduguri, including in an underground detention center at Giwa military barracks, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers have been implicated in detention-related abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. Members of security forces who have carried out alleged abuses have done so with near-total impunity.
"We are looking at a dialogue to establish the grievances of the Boko Haram. I think the attempt to declare them an international terrorist organization will not be helpful," Defence Minister Bello Mohammed said on the sidelines of a meeting between South Africa and Nigeria in Cape Town....Secretary Clinton did meet with President Jonathan in August 2012 and offered a lot of assistance in dealing with Boko Haram:
"Boko Haram is not operating in America and America is not operating in Nigeria," said Mohammed. "They are not involved in our internal security operations, so I don't think it would be of much significance really in that respect. But we don't support it."
Clinton spoke following high-level meetings with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his national security team and government ministers. A senior State Department official said the United States offered to help Nigeria "harmonize" the efforts of its police, military and other security forces. A lack of coordination and information sharing between the various branches is said to be hindering the fight against Islamist extremist sect Boko Haram.In Rogin's story, a former State Department official defends the Clinton-era decision:
Another senior State Department official in the meeting said the Nigerian government was "very interested" in the proposal and that the United States will be sending a team to follow up. The proposal includes helping Nigerian security forces set up an "intelligence fusion cell" to better share information, based on a model used by the United States that it has shared with several other nations.
The State Department says the U.S. also offered to assist in forensics and post-attack inspections, as well as improved methods of tracking and arresting suspected militants.
Inside the Clinton State Department, the most vocal official opposing designating Boko Haram was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who served in that position from 2009 to 2013....And, as noted here, some Nigerian military commanders have actually appeared to be in league with Boko Haram.
Carson defended the decision to avoid naming Boko Haram a terrorist organization in a Wednesday phone call with reporters.
"There was a concern that putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would in fact raise its profile, give it greater publicity, give it greater credibility, help in its recruitment, and also probably drive more assistance in its direction," he said.
The U.S. has plenty of ways to assist the Nigerian government with counterterrorism even without designating Boko Haram, Carson said. The problem has long been that the Nigerian government doesn't always want or accept the help the U.S. has offered over the years.
"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," Carson said. "None of that has anything to do with putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list."
So President Jonathan, who's from the resource-rich south of the country, seems to have struggled to reduce the poverty of the north. His government engages in human rights abuses in response to Boko Haram attacks. He's had generals who've collaborated with Boko Haram. And the U.S. is limited in the aid it can provide Nigeria, which doesn't always accept the aid and advice it gets from the U.S. The U.S. did offer aid, however, and designated three of the group's leaders as terrorists.
So maybe it was still a bad idea to withhold terrorist status from Boko Haram. But there's gray here.