Boko Haram: The Road to US Blacklist

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Abubakar Shekau:Boko Haram leader

The United States on Wednesday designated Nigeria’s radical Islamist Boko Haram network and an offshoot known as Ansaru as terror groups, bowing to months of pressure to act.

Both groups have spread terror in northeastern and central Nigeria and are blamed for thousands of deaths as they battle to set up an Islamic state.

“These designations are an important and appropriate step, but only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government to counter these groups … to help root out violent extremism,” the State Department said.

The Islamist insurgency by the shadowy group has claimed scores of lives since 2009 and triggered concern over its potential to spread across the porous borders in the region.

“By cutting these terrorist organizations off from US financial institutions and enabling banks to freeze assets held in the United States, these designations demonstrate our strong support for Nigeria’s fight against terrorism and its efforts to address security challenges in the north,” White House homeland security advisor Lisa Monaco said.

Nigeria welcomed the decision and hoped that the United States would step up intelligence cooperation.

“We salute the US government for its effort in partnering with Nigeria to rout out terrorism,” Justice Minister Mohammed Adoke told AFP in Nigeria.

“We hope that with this development that the Boko Haram menace will soon become a thing of the past,” he said.

Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader:group now on US blacklist
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader:group now on US blacklist

In July, the State Department offered a $7 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, but raised eyebrows by stopping short of designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization.

While Washington believes that Boko Haram and Ansaru remain “primarily” Nigerian organizations, “both these groups have links to AQIM,” a senior State Department official told reporters, referring to Al-Qaeda’s north and west African affiliate.

“Our assessment is that AQIM has helped provide some training to the groups and has provided some limited financing.”

Emergency rule in the northeast has largely pushed Boko Haram fighters from urban areas into the countryside over the last six months, but attacks have continued unabated.

The three Nigerian states under special measures — Yobe, Borno and Adamawa — share frontiers with Niger, Chad and Cameroon and the military has said that insurgents have struck in Nigeria, then fled across the borders.

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Despite Abuja’s welcome for the designations, Washington has also voiced concern about a heavy-handed crackdown by Nigerian military forces.

“All of our assistance to Nigeria stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are respected,” the State Department said.

‘Western education is sin’

Both groups were officially designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations which bars any Americans from assisting them as well as freezing any assets in the United States.

President Barack Obama met Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and urged him “to pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism approach,” Monaco said.

Roughly translated, Boko Haram means “Western education is sin,” and the insurgents have been blamed for a series of bloody attacks on schools, killing dozens of children.

An earlier version of the group — known then in local reports as the “Nigerian Taliban” — was formed in 2004 and is now believed to have a number of different factions, with differing aims.

Local and Western analysts have long argued that improving living conditions in the mainly Muslim north holds the key to curbing the insurgency.

Boko Haram is blamed for indiscriminate attacks in Benisheikh, Nigeria in September 2012 in which some 160 people were killed, and was also said to be behind the suicide bombing of a UN building in Abuja in August 2011.

Ansaru has focused attacks on Nigerian military and Western targets, kidnapping several foreigners. They are believed to have been behind the kidnapping of a French family seized on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria in February and released in April.

Representative Chris Smith, who chaired a hearing Wednesday on Boko Haram, welcomed the designation which US lawmakers have long sought.

“What these murderers have brought to Nigeria and surrounding countries is misery and death with no redeeming outcome,” he said.