US mulls Nigeria's Boko Haram for terror watch list

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 in a three-year insurgency, and may have ties with Al Qaeda. Will putting the group on a terror watch list help?

By , Staff Writer

The US government is considering putting the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram on its terrorist watch list. The measure, pushed by the US Justice Department, would give US law enforcement agencies the power to prevent known members of Boko Haram to travel, and for any American company to conduct business or money transactions with the militant group.

The proposal to list Boko Haram as a terrorist group comes at a time of growing pressure from the US Congress to act now against the Islamist group. US Rep. Patrick Meehan, has introduced an amendment to a defense bill that would force the Obama administration to act against Boko Haram, or to explain to Congress why it hasn’t done so.

Speaking with Reuters news agency, Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said: "Boko Haram claimed credit for the suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, killing 23 people and injuring more than 80 others.

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"That meets my definition of a terrorist group, but if the administration has a reason why they don't want to designate them, I would like to hear it."

Officially named People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad, Boko Haram has been fighting a three-year long insurgency to replace the current secular constitution of Nigeria with Islamic sharia law. Arguing against Western influences – the nickname “Boko Haram” means “Western education is a sin” – Boko Haram has attacked Christian churches, state universities, state police installations, poker halls, and even international aid organizations such as the UN headquarters in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, killing more than 1,000 people, with 308 people killed in 2011 alone.

Few would argue that Boko Haram fits the definition of a terrorist group. Boko Haram has recently shifted its fighting techniques from Al-Capone-style shoot-outs to more sophisticated suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. It is this new technology, more than actual paper trails, that leads some security experts to believe that Boko Haram has made links to Al Qaeda through other affiliates such as the Algerian based Al Qaeda in the Islamic lands of the Maghreb and the Somalia-based Al Shabab.

To help the Nigerian military counter insurgent groups like Boko Haram, the US Army’s Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, has offered logistics and counterinsurgency training from US special operations force trainers, much as AFRICOM has done in the past for other West African states such as Mali.

But in a country like Nigeria, where the military has intervened numerous times into domestic politics, taking power through violent coups des etats, the US knows that its support of the Nigerian military carries heavy risks. In nearby Mali, the man who led army mutineers in overthrowing the Malian government last March, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, received US AFRICOM training in counterinsurgency. AFRICOM and other US agencies subsequently suspended $13 million in aid to the country until further notice.

Given the US government’s focus on countering terrorist threats, the two pronged strategy of cutting of Boko Haram’s financial support through a “terror watch list” designation, and building up the capacity of Nigeria’s military to combat the group on the ground makes sense. But there are questions about whether the strategy might need some tweaking.

Some civil liberties groups argue that the US’s “no-fly” list, a travel ban for those with supposed terrorist links, has become so lengthy and bloated as to be nearly useless. In February, the Associated Press reported that the number of names on the terrorist “no-fly” list had doubled from 10,000 to 21,000 over the previous year, and the American Civil Liberties Union says that the number of individuals on the broader terrorist watch list is as large as 1 million.

“To be effective, and to be fair, terrorist watch lists must be tightly focused on true terrorists who pose a genuine threat,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The uncontroversial contention that Osama Bin Laden and a handful of other known terrorists should not be allowed on an aircraft is being used to create a monster that goes far beyond what ordinary Americans think of when they think about a ‘terrorist watch list.’”

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, Boko Haram itself is operating on two separate tracks. On one hand, it has offered the chance of dialogue with President Goodluck Jonathan – one on one, at a location chosen by Boko Haram, without police guards – and on the other hand, it has announced its intention to resume its deadly bombing campaign.

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Boko Haram spokesman, Abul Qaqa yesterday told Premium Times, that because of a crackdown by Nigeria’s joint task force in northern states against Boko Haram, government buildings would be bombed.

“…we have decided that in the coming days, every Nigerian, especially in the North, including Abuja, should vacate any government quarters or buildings – residential, office, classroom or anything owned by government.”

“Every government building, whether occupied or empty will be blown up. Whoever is caught up in the attacks has his or herself to blame. We have done our best by issuing this warning.”

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