WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. State Department has designated the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram an official foreign terrorist organization, giving the U.S. added power to weaken the group.
The terrorist designation, which the State Department also assigned to the splinter group Ansaru, means the United States can freeze assets, prohibit members to travel, and bar anyone from providing material support to the organization.
Both Republicans and Democrats applauded the move, although some complained that the State Department should have acted sooner.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the subcommittee on Africa, called the decision “historic” and “monumental” in the battle to defeat Boko Haram.
“The entire effort to combat this cancer called Boko Haram — and Ansaru — will be taken to a new level, because it’s always about the funding,” Smith told WORLD News. “These groups cannot exist without a flow of AK-47s and munitions of all kinds. … Now we’ll do the kind of research that will make the difference.”
The official announcement came ahead of a Nov. 13 joint hearing on Boko Haram in the House subcommittees on Africa and Terrorism.
Boko Haram — whose name translates into English as “Western education is sinful” — started in 2003 as the “Nigerian Taliban,” but it has resurged since 2009, killing thousands of mostly Christian Nigerians in hundreds of attacks across the country. The human rights group Jubilee Campaign reported Boko Haram killed more than 500 people in the month of September alone, including 150 Christians in a single highway massacre.
Nigeria and Great Britain both designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization earlier this year, but the State Department for years resisted calls for it to do the same. Last month Smith filed H.R. 3209, which called for the U.S. to label the terror group a foreign terrorist organization.
Brad Sherman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, said the nation has heard a lot about the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, but “it’s time for us to pivot to Africa.”
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, defended the administration’s decision to wait, telling the committees the U.S. only made the decision after much deliberation. “I know you think we took too long,” she said. “But we made sure we got it right.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the designation was slow in coming because the U.S. was “trying to understand how Boko Haram is organized in order to be able to effectively target the group and its assets.” She said the U.S. is confident Boko Haram has ties to al-Qaeda.
If there was any doubt, Habila Adamu put it to rest with riveting testimony about his Nov. 28, 2012 encounter with Boko Haram. Gunman wearing robes and masks came to his home in northern Yobe state and told him they were doing the work of Allah.
“When I hear that, I knew that that day I would see my Lord,” Adamu said.
After Adamu refused to denounce his Christian faith, the gunman shot him through the mouth in front of his wife, stomped on him, and left him for dead. He said they shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — Arabic for “Allah is great” — before leaving.
Adamu, who became emotional at times, hardly glanced down at his notes as he looked lawmakers in the eye and pleaded with them, on behalf of all victims, to stop “the spilling of innocent blood.” He said God allowed him to live so he could tell his story and do everything possible to end the persecution in northern Nigeria.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and oil-rich country, is roughly split between Muslims and Christians. Muslims have enacted Sharia law in the north but Boko Haram, among other objectives, wants the entire country to adhere to the strict Muslim code.
Thomas-Greenfield, who estimated Boko Haram membership “probably in the mid-thousands,” said the Nigerian military does have the ability to beat the extremists, but “they need support.”
Witness Jacob Zenn, author of the 2012 book Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy, told the committee the terrorist designation is a good start, but most of Boko Haram’s funding is now local and non-traditional. He urged the U.S. to aggressively pursue the group’s underground network of support and not rely on stopping traditional financing methods.
J.C. Derrick is a writer for WORLD News Service. This article is used by permission from WORLD News Service.