Why Hillary Clinton’s State Dept. didn’t list Boko Haram as a terrorist group

Was Hillary Clinton 'soft on Boko Haram?' The US now lists it as a terrorist group, but the Clinton State Dept. listed only individuals. Experts, and Nigeria, had opposed the designation at the time.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A demonstrator holds a banner, during a protest about the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, near the Nigerian High Commission in London, Friday, May 9, 2014. Global outrage against the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Islamist militant sect Boko Haram heated up Thursday, as a social media campaign drew worldwide support.

Criticism is building like a summer thunderstorm that Hillary Clinton dropped the ball on addressing a growing terrorist threat in Africa during her time as secretary of state.

But this is not another Benghazi story focused on what critics say was Mrs. Clinton’s fatal failure to take Libya’s Ansar-al-Sharia seriously enough.

Rather, it has to do with Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist militant group that has become the focus of international attention over the past week in the wake of the vicious group’s abduction last month of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls.

The US lists Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization. But that designation occurred only last year, under John Kerry’s State Department. An earlier proposal by a congressional committee that the group be placed on the US terror list was studied but ultimately denied in 2012 by Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.

The Clinton State Department did add three Boko Haram leaders to the US list of individual terrorists, including Abubakar Shekau – the leader who issued a video this week in which he claims the mass kidnapping and vows to “sell in the market” the 276 girls though to still be under his control.

While what Clinton did or didn’t do about Boko Haram is getting scrutiny because of the global attention – and reprobation – directed toward the kidnapping, there are other reasons as well for the focus on Clinton’s treatment of Boko Haram.

Some critics say Clinton invited the scrutiny when she joined the chorus of condemnation of Boko Haram this week, labeling the kidnapping and threatened enslavement of the girls “an act of terrorism [that] really merits the fullest response possible.” The Daily Beast quoted an unnamed “former senior US official” dubbing as “gross hypocrisy” Clinton’s call now for swift action against a group she failed to list as a terrorist organization when she could have.

But others see politics behind the brouhaha, especially since Clinton – who continues to best any potential Republican challenger in 2016 presidential polling – often cites her focus on women’s and girls’ issues as a key accomplishment of her time as secretary of state.

If Clinton does run for president, expect “soft on Boko Haram” to join “inattention to growing threats in Benghazi” as evidence that US foreign and national security policy was weak and adrift with Clinton at the helm of the State Department.

Conservative critics argue that, contrary to what President Obama asserts, Al Qaeda and related groups are flourishing under his foreign policy, and Clinton will not escape association with that “failure” if she seeks the White House.

The blasts at Clinton will no doubt sound much like the charges of negligence being leveled against Mr. Obama in the uproar over the schoolgirls and Boko Haram.

As Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Friday, “The real problem here is that Islamist extremism is growing. Boko Haram and its leader Abubakar Shekau … are part of the epidemic of Al Qaeda-linked and related groups that are sweeping Africa and the Middle East.” And “despite widespread recognition of the growing threat of these groups,” she added, “the Obama administration has yet to acknowledge that we are losing the fight against Islamist extremism.”

So why would Clinton opt not to list Boko Haram as a terrorist organization? The former secretary of state may now be ruing the day she made that decision, but as evidence suggests at the time, it followed a certain logic.

Not just any terrorist group makes it to the State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. A designation process must find that the group threatens US national security interests, economic interests, and US citizens.

Boko Haram was not seen as a direct threat yet to the US and its interests – although some members of Congress pressing for the designation noted that other local or regional groups had evolved into threats to the US. That was especially true of groups that grew to become affiliates of Al Qaeda. Boko Haram was considered by some experts to be “linked” to Al Qaeda because of its known contacts with groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

So the argument to list was largely one in favor of preventive action. But opposed to that position were two dozen Africa and terrorism experts who advocated for not listing Boko Haram, saying a designation by the US risked raising the group’s international profile and prestige – and therefore might accomplish for the group exactly what those seeking designation said they sought to prevent.

In a letter to Clinton, the 24 specialists – including a former US ambassador to Nigeria – argued that designating Boko Haram might encourage the group to redirect its focus and start targeting US and Western interests. Listing Boko Haram also entailed risks for the US, the scholars argued, because it would have the effect of associating the US more closely with the counterterrorism campaign of the Nigerian government, which international human rights groups had faulted for being carried out with summary executions and little regard for civilian rights.

Complicating the question of the pros and cons of associating more closely with the Nigerian government was the fact that the government of Nigeria, a US partner in a sea of African instability and conflict, was strongly opposed to a US listing of Boko Haram.

Why would Nigeria want to avoid such a spotlight on a brutal terrorist group? Such a designation would invite more outside intervention in Nigeria’s internal affairs, could suggest that Nigeria was losing control of the Muslim north, and would run against official Nigerian thinking that Boko Haram was a domestic problem that Nigeria was capable of handling on its own.

That argument got an echo in what Clinton had to say this week about the girls’ abduction, when she underscored her view that whatever rescue effort is undertaken must come “first and foremost from the government of Nigeria.”

That may not be the last word Clinton has to say about the Nigerian schoolgirls. Just as the current fuss over the former secretary of state’s treatment of a terrorist designation is almost certainly not the last we’ll hear about Clinton and Boko Haram.

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