'This Is What Terror Is': Administration Slammed for Brushing Off Religious Root of Boko Haram Threat
WASHINGTON -- On the same day the administration finally designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, a survivor of the Islamist group's inhumanity poured out to Congress his story of being shot point-blank in the face for his Christian faith.
The joint subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs panels on Africa and Terrorism was sparsely attended by lawmakers, with chairmen Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), respectively, and ranking members Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) showing up to hear the horrifying tales from this hotbed of extremism -- and learn about the threat the al-Qaeda-linked group poses to the U.S.
Habila Adamu comes from Yobe state in northern Nigeria, where gunmen came to his home on Nov. 28, 2012. They ordered him to step outside as his wife begged the gunmen not to harm him.
"They said she should go back, because they were here to do the work of Allah," Adamu said. "When I heard that, I knew that they were here to kill me."
After Adamu confirmed to the men armed with AK-47s that he was a businessman and not police or military, they asked if he was a Christian. "I said I am a Christian. They asked me why are we preaching the message of Mohammed to you and you refuse to accept Islam. I told them I am a Christian, we are also preaching the gospel of true God to you and other people that are not yet to know God," Adamu testified. "They asked me if I mean we Christian know God. And I told them we know God and that is why I preach the good news to other people that do not know God."
"Then they asked me, 'Habila, are you ready to die as a Christian?' I told them, 'I am ready to die as a Christian.' For the second time, they asked me, 'Are you ready to die as a Christian?' and I told them, 'I am ready,' but before I closed my mouth, they have fired me through my nose and the bullet came out through the back."
Adamu said he fell to the ground as the gunmen stomped on his body, crying "Allahu Akbar" as his wife sobbed. When his wife realized he was alive and went to find help, she found the neighbors had been murdered. Adamu lay there for eight hours before he was able to get to a hospital. He held up photos of his bloody, swollen face after the attack for committee members to see.
"I am alive because God want you to have a message," he continued. "I have a message, just as I told my wife as I was left for dead, I have a message to everyone that will hear my story. Do everything that you can to end this ruthless religious persecution in Northern Nigeria."
And there were more horrific tales to come, as the subcommittees heard that Boko Haram has been beheading Christians with chainsaws.
Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist, told the panel that 47 churches were attacked in the country in 2012 and 53 attacked this year so far, with 216 deaths. Boko Haram has also increasingly been killing more people at mosques.
He faulted the U.S. government for claiming that the terrorists are economically motivated rather than religious in nature -- something even publicly corrected by Boko Haram, which fancies itself the Taliban of the region -- and "being more critical of the military counteroffensive than of the terrorists’ atrocities."
Ogebe told the story of Deborah, who in April 2012 had to watch her husband shot to death by Boko Haram terrorists as he prepared for a children's Bible study. The gunmen then snatched her 7- and 9-year-old girls, who have been missing ever since.
"This is horrific for any parent," Ogebe said. But Boko Haram then "came back three months later, said 'Have you converted to Islam?' She said no. They shot her remaining son. This is what terror is."
The State Department's designation of Boko Haram and its offshoot, Ansaru, was so sudden the morning of the hearing that Ogebe's submitted testimony still included a plea for the U.S. to finally add the Islamist groups to the list.
"We are concerned that it took them too long," Ogebe said, who said in his prepared remarks that "part of the State Department’s response has been to deny the religious motivation of a rabid jihadist group that has repeatedly declared its goal of overthrowing the state and establishing a radical Muslim theocracy; to downplay the repeated threats to America going back several years by claiming this is all 'local'; presenting arguments rationalizing terrorism by psycho-analyzing the emotional disconnect between the central government and northern Muslims who fuel the terrorism."
He noted that September was the bloodiest month since 2009, including a rush-hour ambush where Boko Haram stopped drivers and double-checked licenses if they gave a Muslim name.
"They killed 152 Christians that day," Ogebe said. "They used chainsaws to behead people."
A few Muslims who didn't have ID cards were kidnapped to be forcibly conscripted into the terror group, he added.
"To state that religion does not play a role in the extremism exhibited by the terrorist group is disingenuous at best and deeply insensitive to victims," Ogebe said.
"America’s missed opportunity in properly understanding and promptly responding to the Boko Haram threat has misled the government of Nigeria, weakened its response and resulted in numerous lives lost plus a heightened and highly evolved threat to the U.S. homeland and global community. If after September 11th, the global community had responded by pontificating on America’s perceived sins to the Arab world instead of rallying around to jointly disavow terrorism, giant strides would not have been made in decimating Al Qaeda. This is why the U.S. response to a crucial African ally is unfair and unfortunate."
Testifying alone before the Nigerian witnesses were brought up to speak, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the subcommittees that "these groups attack the Nigerian government, military, and ordinary citizens of all walks of life, including numerous Christians and an even greater number of Muslims."
Ogebe later responded that "this narrative is not supported by the facts" and noted it's "highly insensitive to the victims when the U.S. puts out statements like that."
In a statement from Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, the White House announced Wednesday that it had decided to move forward with the Foreign Terrorist Organizations designation based on "dozens of attacks on churches and mosques, targeted killings of civilians, and the 2011 suicide bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja that killed 21 people and injured dozens more."
Thomas-Greenfield testified that Boko Haram "has exploited religious rhetoric in an attempt to justify its violence, casting the state as hopelessly corrupt and un-Islamic."
"Boko Haram’s activities call our attention not just to violence, but also to poverty and inequality in Nigeria," she said, adding that the U.S. government is "concerned by reports that some Nigerian security forces have committed gross human rights violations in response to Boko Haram."
When questioned by Smith about the State Department's characterization of the Islamist terror group's motives, Thomas-Greenfield responded that "terrorist organizations harm everyone."
"As they have killed Christians in the name of Islam, they've also killed Muslims in the name of Islam," she said. "While they do have a religious bent to what they do, they are non-discriminating in their attacks on people."
Ogebe noted that in USAID bidding documents it lists Nigeria "specifically as an example of a country that doesn’t suffer extremism."
"The U.S. has presented an award to a hardline Muslim imam who would not let American officials into his mosque," he said. "At the same time, it has labeled Christian ministers whose congregants are being slaughtered in the thousands as 'radical,' which is ironic given the manner civil rights pastors were marked in America’s own history."
Of greatest concern, Ogebe added, is America's plan to open a consulate in the Boko Haram-plagued north of the country in order to establish better ties with the region. "Isn’t it a brilliant idea to place more American lives and property at great expense in grave danger at the height of a low-grade insurgency that claimed more lives in one day than in either Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2012?" he said, stressing that Boko Haram has attacked U.S. citizens.
Jacob Zenn, a research analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation, told lawmakers that the U.S. intelligence community needs more linguists for source analysis in Hausa, Fulani and other indigenous African languages as well as a greater partnership with the Nigerian diaspora -- just a couple of steps in a multi-pronged strategy to fight Boko Haram. Thomas-Greenfield admitted the U.S. isn't even sure about the size of Boko Haram and Ansaru, estimating they're in the "mid-thousands."
Zenn said both Boko Haram and Ansaru receive "significant funding" from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He confirmed that both groups "can carry out attacks throughout West Africa."
"They are more likely to target U.S. interests and personnel in southern Nigeria as a next step before the U.S. homeland," he said.