President Barack Obama this week called Nigeria’s Boko Haram group, which last month kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls, “one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations.” But according to a new report in the Daily Beast, the State Department under Hillary Clinton for two years “fought hard” against adding the group believed to have links to Al Qaeda to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Daily Beast senior correspondent Josh Rogin reported Wednesday that other government agencies, including the CIA, along with more than a dozen members of Congress had urged the State Department when Clinton was Secretary of State to officially designate the Nigerian Islamist group a terrorist organization.
“The one thing she could have done, the one tool she had at her disposal, she didn’t use. And nobody can say she wasn’t urged to do it. It’s gross hypocrisy,” a former senior U.S. official who was involved in the debate told the Daily Beast. “The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department really wanted Boko Haram designated, they wanted the authorities that would provide to go after them, and they voiced that repeatedly to elected officials.”
The reason why, it seems, is there was concern that designating the group officially as a world class terrorist organization would have just added to its stature.
The Daily Beast noted that Clinton this week has spoken out about the mass kidnapping, calling it, “abominable” and saying, “it’s criminal, it’s an act of terrorism and it really merits the fullest response possible, first and foremost from the government of Nigeria.” She also condemned the abduction in a May 4 tweet, writing in part, “We must stand up to terrorism.”
But her comments didn’t tell the whole story of the unfolding or the protracted debate while she was at the helm of the diplomatic agency.
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau earlier this week claimed responsibility for kidnapping 276 schoolgirls and said his group now plans “by Allah” to sell them.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the Islamist militants killed as many as 300 in an attack on a border town in the northeast, setting homes and shops on fire.
U.S. lawmakers – who had written letters to Clinton while she was serving as chief diplomat – and former administration officials told the Daily Beast they believe the delay in adding Boko Haram to the terrorist list may have thwarted the U.S. government’s ability to help Nigeria fight the insurgents.
While Boko Haram was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organization in November 2013, Clinton did not add the group to the list in 2011 even after it had detonated a bomb in the United Nations headquarters in Abuja.
The Daily Beast reported that repeated warnings about Boko Haram’s dangerous potential went unheeded by the State Department. These included then-Justice Department official Lisa Monaco (now at the White House) who in May 2012 wrote to urge Clinton to add the group to the terrorist list.
One month later, commander of the U.S. Africa Command Gen. Carter Ham said that three of Africa’s largest Islamist militant groups were coordinating their efforts. He noted in particular that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was likely sharing explosives and funds with Boko Haram.
“And yet, Hillary Clinton’s State Department still declined to place Boko Haram on its official terrorist roster,” Rogin wrote in the Daily Beast.
Several Republican lawmakers told the Daily Beast that they believe delaying the terrorist designation delayed for two years the ability of U.S. law enforcement to push against the growing threat.
“For years, Boko Haram has terrorized Nigeria and Western interests in the region with few consequences,” Sen. James Risch told the Daily Beast. “The U.S. government should have moved more quickly to list them as a terrorist organization and brought U.S. resources to track and disrupt their activities. The failure to act swiftly has had consequences.”
The news site reported that it obtained internal State Department emails showing the department had lobbied against GOP legislation in early 2013 that would have forced Clinton to add the group to the terrorist list or explain why she was not.
However, others suggest that adding Boko Haram to the list would not have had that great an impact and may have even enhanced the militants’ reputation.
An unnamed former senior counterterrorism official told the Daily Beast. “There are a lot of other things you can do in counterterrorism that doesn’t require a designation.”
The official said that during Clinton’s tenure, there were diplomatic and military intelligence efforts underway to assist the Nigerian government in its battle and that three Boko Haram related individuals were sanctioned during Clinton’s tenure.
“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,” said Johnnie Carson who served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Clinton.
Carson furthermore said the Nigerian government has not always been willing to accept U.S. assistance.
“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.”
The Obama administration announced this week that it would contribute to the effort to search for the abducted girls including sending a small team of FBI, Justice Department, State Department and military personnel to Nigeria.
Boko Haram, which is loosely translated to “Western education is forbidden,” is aiming to overthrow the government and establish a hardline Islamic state.
Clinton representatives did not respond to Daily Beast requests for comment.
Read the full report about the evolution of the terrorist designation decision at the Daily Beast at this link.