Suspected member of Islamist militant sect Boko Haram
Suspected member of Islamist militant sect Boko Haram

The U.S. State Department has received pressure from members of Congress and the Justice Department to designate the militant Islamic sect Boko Haram, based in northern Nigeria, a foreign terrorist organization.

The Nigerian government is opposing the initiative, saying that it would impede its efforts to solve what it considers a domestic dispute with the sect.

We are looking at a dialogue to establish the grievances of the Boko Haram. I think the attempt to declare them an international terrorist organization will not be helpful, Nigerian Defense Minister Bello Mohammed said recently, Reuters reported.

Boko Haram is not operating in America and America is not operating in Nigeria. They are not involved in our internal security operations, so I don't think it would be of much significance really in that respect. But we don't support it.

The Nigerian government has allies in the United States. Last week, a group of 24 American scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her not to designate Boko Haram an FTO.

We are acutely aware of the horrific violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, including attacks on both Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, whether government officials or civilian targets, read the letter. We share your concerns about the impact of extremist violence on Nigeria's democratic progress and security in general.

However an FTO designation would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria's security services, limit the State Department's latitude in shaping a long-term strategy, and undermine the U.S. Government's ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.

Boko Haram, formed in 2002, has carried out multiple attacks against Nigeria's police forces, politicians, public institutions, rival Islamic leaders and Christian civilians, with a particular uptick in violence in 2009, following the Nigerian government's extrajudicial killing of the sect's founder and radical Islamist cleric, Mohammad Yusuf.

The group has claimed responsibility for a 2011 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in the capital Abuja, which killed 23 people and injured 116, raising concerns among foreign governments that Boko Haram intends to expand its terrorist activities to an international level as well as build ties with Al-Qaeda.

The American scholars, however, countered this idea in their letter to Sec. Clinton, saying that Boko Haram's focus has been overwhelmingly domestic and that the motivations for the attacks are tied with the political and socio-economic situation in Nigeria.

Rhetorically, some of Boko Haram's critique of northern underdevelopment and elite corruption is within the realm of mainstream political discourse, they said.

The academics argued that these are issues that need to be addressed by the Nigerian government and that designating Boko Haram an FTO would only further radicalize the group and hinder attempts for a diplomatic solution.

John Campbell, senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the 24 signatories of the letter to Sec. Clinton, described Boko Haram as not so much an organization as it is an inchoate rebellion. He dismissed the notion that the group has any centralized leadership, and said it had no capacity to build international ties with other terrorist organizations.

Maybe one guy claiming to be a member of Boko Haram talked with another guy claiming to be a member of Al-Qaeda at some point, but that's about as far as it goes, he said.

Another criticism the academics made of the FTO designation regarded the economic burden it would place on Nigeria.

An FTO designation would also subject Nigeria to a number of sanctions and place certain restrictions on Nigerian citizens.

The Nigerian government has expressed concern that the designation will affect bilateral trade with the U.S., make it more difficult for Nigerian citizens to travel there, and discourage Nigerian expats from sending money back to their relatives in the form of foreign remittances, which in 2010 accounted for roughly 4.5 percent of Nigeria's GDP, some $10 billion.

Thousands of Nigerian-Americans would ... fear prosecution for sending money home, wrote Carl LeVan, professor of comparative and regional African studies at American University and another signatory of the letter to Clinton.

The State Department has not indicated when it will decide whether or not to designate Boko Haram an FTO, but Campbell's advice is that the U.S. needs to stop treating this as a security issue and start treating it for what it is -- a political issue.