Boko Haram is a violent Salafist group that emerged in predominantly Muslim northeast Nigeria in the early 2000s. (Salafism is a Sunni Muslim reform movement that seeks return to the mores of the first generations of Muslims — the Salafiyya or the companions of Mohammed.)
There are reports that it got seed money from Osama bin Laden, and it has long been known to have al Qaeda ties, but how closely it actually works with al Qaeda — as opposed to loud displays of ideological support — is the subject of some debate in the U.S. government. This debate is reflective of general confusion and incoherence in American counterterrorism policy.
The ideological glue that holds Islamist groups together is Islamic supremacism, which is directly derived from a strict, literal interpretation of Muslim scripture, coupled with a belief that the “golden age” of Islam was the time of the first generations — Mohammed and his immediate companions and descendants — to which Muslims must return if they are ever to overcome the corrupting influence of the West. (Boko Haram actually means “Western education is ‘haram’ or forbidden.”)
Nevertheless, our government adamantly refuses to acknowledge the Islamic doctrinal underpinnings of Islamic supremacism. Consequently, the disconnect: Boko Haram is quite clear that its goal is to impose sharia law and join al Qaeda’s global jihad. Its targets include churches and Western symbols, and its current leader, Abubakar Shekau, is quoted threatening the United States in 2010: “Do not think jihad is over. Rather jihad has just begun. America, die with your fury.” Yet, the Obama administration long refused to designate it as a terrorist organization — at the insistence of the State Department under Hillary Clinton, over the objections of other government agencies. (The State Department finally listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organization after John Kerry took over for Mrs. Clinton.)
Instead, ignoring what Boko Haram pronounces its goals to be, the Obama administration portrayed it as a diffuse organization with no clear agenda that was ascendant due to the policies of the Nigerian government (which is under Christian leadership). As the Boko Haram threat got progressively worse, the State Department and the White House theorized that it could be defused by better government engagement with the Muslim population in Northern Nigeria, and that designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organization—which would have triggered our law’s array of counterterrorism tools and squeezed the organization financially—would raise its prestige while encouraging more government repression against Muslims.
Note the absurdity: our government denies the Islamic doctrinal roots of jihadist terror, yet constantly fears that America’s condemnation of a group as “terrorist” will increase its appeal to factions of the Muslim population.
The wayward policy poses challenges in the current crisis over Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of girls and young women. The administration’s reluctance to crack down on Boko Haram owes to its sympathies for the Islamist case against the Nigerian government—not, it should be stressed, for Boko Haram’s terrorist methods and extremism, but for the claim that the Nigerian government’s vigorous, forcible response to terrorism is what provokes terrorism.
This obviously does not promote an effective working relationship between the American and Nigerian governments. The administration is offering various forms of assistance, including dispatching the FBI—much as the FBI mobilized in Kenya and Tanzania after the U.S. embassies were bombed by al Qaeda in 1998. But American law-enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction to act on foreign soil without the indulgence of the host government.
If the Nigerian government harbors suspicions that the Obama administration is sympathetic to the government’s Islamist opposition, it will be very difficult for American government agencies to be effective in responding to the crisis.