May 15, 2014 -- A top State Department official today acknowledged that the U.S. could have designated the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram as a terrorist organization earlier, but said the delay was in deference to the Nigerian government’s own concerns.
“In retrospect, we might have done it earlier. I think the important thing is that we have done it,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Robert P. Jackson said before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee. “The debate was really about the Nigerian attitude toward designation. The government feared that designating these individuals would bring more attention to them. For some time, we accepted that point of view.”
Jackson’s comments echoed those made by former Obama administration Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson to ABC News last week when he said the U.S. “didn’t move on Boko Haram because we thought it would give them a recruitment boost.”
But that, and the argument that Boko Haram was not an international threat to the U.S., was just one side of the debate in Washington about how to deal with the extremist group. Back in 2011 some lawmakers and others inside U.S. counter-terrorism programs – including the Special Operations community and U.S. Africa Command – wanted to target it for surveillance, human intelligence penetration and possibly even lethal action just as the U.S. had other al Qaeda-aligned groups, current and former official told ABC News last week.
“Special Operations Command and others tried to elevate the status of Boko Haram to a Tier One Threat Group several times, only to be shot down by State,” a senior official familiar with the policy debate said.
The Daily Beast also reported last week that the FBI, CIA and Justice Department pushed for Boko Haram to be designated as a terrorist organization in 2011 after the group bombed a United Nations office in Nigeria. Though some in the State Department shared their view, as policy State maintained its resistance.
Boko Haram leaders were designated individually as terrorists in 2012 and then the group as a whole was finally designated a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013.
Six months later, in mid-April, Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls aged 15 to 18 and pledged to sell some into slavery. A few escaped, but in the weeks since, the Nigerian government has been unable to locate the rest, even with the recent help of American surveillance aircraft overhead.
“We should've intervened when the group attacked a UN building back in 2011 or even sooner. Evidence of AQIM/Boko Haram collaboration was well known," a former U.S. special operator who used to hunt high-value targets on the ground in North Africa told ABC News today. AQIM is an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa. "This begs the question, why would the State Department wait so long to come around on this issue?"
“I think that there is definitely a lesson here and I think we will be quicker to act and make designations based on our own assessments,” Jackson said.