Can 20 US women senators help save 276 kidnapped Nigerian girls?

Twenty female US senators urge the United Nations to add Nigeria’s Boko Haram to its Al Qaeda sanctions list in a bid to help dry up the group's international support and sources of income.

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, speaks in a video Monday in which his group claimed responsibility for the April 15 mass abduction of nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria.

The demand of all 20 female US senators that the United States press the United Nations to add Nigeria’s Boko Haram to its Al Qaeda sanctions list is unlikely to do anything in the short term for the 276 schoolgirls the terrorist organization is holding captive.

But adding the Islamist militant group to the global terrorism list could be beneficial in the longer fight against Africa’s spreading Islamist extremism, some regional experts say. In recent months, Boko Haram has focused its vicious attacks on educators and students involved in what it considers to be forbidden Western-style education.

The Democratic and Republican senators said in a letter to President Obama Tuesday that placing Boko Haram on the UN’s list of organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda could help dry up the terror group’s international support and sources of income.

“The Senate women stand united in condemning this reprehensible crime and are firm in our resolve that it will not be tolerated,” said Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland and Susan Collins (R) of Maine in a joint letter signed by the other 18 female senators. “We will not stand by and allow the Nigerian people to continue to be terrorized by Boko Haram and will continue to lead the effort to impose tough economic sanctions against this group.”

On Wednesday, Senator Collins called on Mr. Obama to send in a team of Special Forces to rescue the girls, who are reportedly being held at an abandoned military installation in a remote forest and game reserve. Senator Mikulski hedged on that demand, saying it is the responsibility of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to lead rescue efforts. 

Designating Boko Haram internationally as a terrorist organization would shine a spotlight on the spread of Islamist extremism – and Al Qaeda affiliations – deeper into Africa along the seam where the predominately Muslim north meets the south. That might be more important than stanching Boko Haram’s resources, some terrorism analysts say.

The spreading instability has prompted some regional experts to coin the name “Sahelistan” for the band across the middle of Africa encompassing the semiarid Sahel. The worry is that rising extremism and ethnic tensions in places like Mali and Sudan are seeping farther south into countries like Nigeria, with its Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

The Nigerian schoolgirl crisis should prompt greater US attention to the dangers facing Nigeria, a country with about a fifth of Africa’s population, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton said in a Fox News opinion piece Wednesday.

“Nigeria’s failure [to halt Boko Haram’s rise] has enormous political implications throughout northern Africa,” said Ambassador Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “If Boko Haram’s reach and strength continue to grow, it is not impossible that Nigeria’s ethnically and religiously diverse population could face massive internal strife, and perhaps even split apart.”

Boko Haram is finding fertile ground in northern Nigeria not because its ideology is attractive to the area’s Muslims, but because of the high poverty (particularly compared with Nigeria’s south) and lack of economic opportunity and state services, the International Crisis Group notes in a recent report.

Placing Boko Haram on the UN’s Al Qaeda Sanctions List would, in theory, enlist all UN members in efforts to weaken and limit the group. The Security Council-managed list was established in 1999 to combat the Afghan Taliban’s embrace of Osama bin Laden’s organization, but it was modified and expanded after the 9/11 attacks and at several points since then.

The list currently counts 213 individuals and 61 entities associated with Al Qaeda.

Boko Haram would seem a likely candidate for the list. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, has expressed solidarity with Al Qaeda since rising to the group’s helm in 2010 – and he did again Tuesday in a video in which he claims his intention to “sell in the market” the abducted girls.

The State Department added Boko Haram to the US list of foreign terrorist organizations last year, citing what it said are the group’s links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Somalia-based Al-Shabab.

At the UN in New York, officials warned Wednesday that any selling of the captive girls would be a “crime against humanity” and could land Boko Haram’s leaders in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The perpetrators of the crime should remember the “absolute prohibition of slavery and sexual slavery in international law, which under certain circumstances can constitute crimes against humanity,” said UN associate spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci.

The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, condemned Boko Haram for its stated intention to “sell” human beings, Ms. Maestracci said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also “very concerned” about the Nigerian girls and reports that some have already been sold, Maestracci said. Mr. Ban finds it simply “unacceptable,” she added, that the girls were “abducted from a school where they should be able to get an education and feel safe.”     

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