Although the Nigerian radical Islamist group Boko Haram has long made even the al Qaeda groups look moderate slaughtering entire villages and shooting or burning to death 59 school boys it apparently took the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls to get the world’s attention, including that of America and Britain. And then we learned that during the first term of the Obama administration, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to even label the group as a “terrorist” organization. Her successor John Kerry’s reversal of this stance last year and the current high public profile of the president and first lady expressing public horror over the group’s actions are long overdue, right? Not so fast; public posturing isn’t usually that productive when dealing with groups ruthless enough to take such terrorist actions (that is, wantonly massacring or kidnapping innocent civilians).
The Obamas, however, are not the only ones posturing. Republicans have criticized Mrs. Clinton for being weak in dealing with the group, but that is because she is currently the strongest possible Democratic candidate that they could face in the 2016 presidential election.
Counterintuitively, Mrs. Clinton actually made the correct decision by not pronouncing Boko Haram as a terrorist group. Huh?
The State Department’s reasoning during the first Obama administration, backed up by the Nigerian government, was that putting the group on the U.S. list of terrorist groups would only raise the group’s status around the world and allow it the publicity needed to raise more money and recruit more fighters. Moreover, the thinking went that the group, which focuses largely on local issues, might start attacking US interests. Furthermore, the US designation is merely symbolic, because the group does not operate or raise money in the United States.
Believe it or not, this logic was good at the time and still is, even in the face of the furor over the abducted schoolgirls. Anytime a politician takes a very public posture on an act of terrorism (especially when it concerns someone else’s terrorism problem) be ready for the wrong thing to be done even if that politician has the best of intentions. For example, after 9/11, instead of trying to dampen the understandable anger of the American people and take effective measures against al Qaeda in the shadows, President George W. Bush capitalized on the public rage to conduct two invasions and nation-building occupations of Muslim lands, one of which in Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. These wars, part of Bush’s very public Global War on Terror, led to more blowback terrorism, not less, because they did more of what al Qaeda and other Islamist groups had been long complaining about the United States and other non-Muslim countries attacking or occupying Muslim soil.
Of course, if Hillary Clinton’s logic was good at the time for one group, one might ask if putting any group no matter how deserving on the US terrorism list doesn’t raise the group’s profile and fundraising ability. After all, it shows that a world superpower is concerned about the organization. More important, such action could cause any group with local interests such as Boko Haram to realize that they could raise more money and get more followers by also attacking US interests.
Many of the groups on the US terrorism list don’t focus their attacks on the United States. In addition, the list of groups and countries has long been politicized, with for example the Provisional Irish Republican Army never achieving the worst designation, because of its popularity in parts of the United States. In contrast, Cuba, which long ago dropped its support for terrorists, was just continued on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, only because the United States still can’t get along with the Castro brothers.
Being on the US terrorism list can allow financial measures to be taken against groups and countries, but this list should be kept to only groups attacking the United States or countries sponsoring them in doing so. If the United States wants to continue to be the conscience of the world, fighting everyone’s battles, at least we could provide anti-terrorism advisors and expertise more discreetly. The Nigerian government, which has been portrayed as dragging its feet in accepting outside help to find the schoolgirls, seems to realize that very public Western assistance may increase support for Boko Haram within Nigeria. Thus, in the long term, such a backlash would be likely only to increase the number of victims of the group. However, a more low key and effective US policy often doesn’t work for US politicians, who need to be seen as responding to public pressure to “do something” about horrifying acts of terrorism.