(Update: Adds State Department comment.)
(CNSNews.com) – The leader of the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram – which the State Department so far has refused to designate as a foreign terrorist organization – boasted Monday that it was now strong enough to “comfortably confront” the United States.
Boko Haram is not only fighting the cause of Islam in Nigeria, Abubakar Shekau said in a video message, but also against the leaders of the U.S., France and all other countries that do not rule according to the teachings of the Qur’an, the Lagos Guardian daily reported.
Shekau also claimed responsibility for a spate of recent deadly attacks, threatened more, and said his group’s firepower now exceeded that of the Nigerian military.
Premium Times, an Abuja-based media group, translated other portions of his message from the local Hausa language.
“Let the world know that we have been enjoined by Allah to kill the unbelievers,” Shekau said. “We shall continue to kill those who strive to stand against the will of Allah by opposing shari’a. We don’t mind if we die doing this because it is even a blessing for us to die in this cause and gain paradise.”
Since 2009 Boko Haram (the name roughly translates “Western education is prohibited”) has developed from an obscure sect to a group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians and others, and with global jihadist pretentions.
On Sunday its gunmen attacked a mosque in northern Borno state, killing 44 people, and killed at least another 12 people in a nearby village, officials reported. Christians have borne the brunt of its violent campaign, which also included an Aug. 2011 suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja that killed 25 people.
Senior U.S. military officers have for several years been voicing concerns about Boko Haram’s collaboration with al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab.
“We have seen indications of a sharing of financing,” then-U.S. Africa Command commander Gen. Carter Ham told the House Armed Services Committee last March, saying he was “very worried” about the situation.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is, we believe, al-Qaeda’s best funded, wealthiest affiliate, if you will, mostly from kidnapping for ransom, but also through drug trade. And we believe they have provided financing directly to Boko Haram,” he said. “We believe that they have shared training, to include explosives training, and we believe that fighters from Nigeria, Boko Haram-sponsored fighters, have found their way over the past year to training camps in northern Mali.”
Ham said he believed some elements in Boko Haram would like to broaden the target beyond Nigeria, “to include not just in Africa, but Europe and aspirationally to the United States.”
“That’s why it’s important for us, in partnership with Nigeria and others, to help them counter this before their capability matches their intent.”
Boko Haram’s violent activities are the subject of an investigation by International Criminal Court prosecutors, who in a report this month cited evidence that the group is responsible for crimes against humanity and persecution, particularly targeting Nigerian Christians.
“In the past two years, Boko Haram has shown signs of transitioning into a globalized Salafi-jihadi group and has attracted international attention in particular by launching suicide attacks,” the report said.
The Nigerian government last May declared a state of emergency in northern areas affected by the violence and in June outlawed Boko Haram under legislation that provides for a minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment for anyone who supports a listed group.
The British government last month proscribed Boko Haram, saying the move aimed to prevent it from operating in the U.K. and to block British-based support for the group.
Yet despite those developments, initiatives in the U.S. House and Senate, and appeals by Nigerian Christians, the State Department continues to delay making a decision on designating Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a move that can entail the deportation of members, denial of U.S. visas, prosecution of those in the U.S. who provide funds, and the blocking of assets.
In June last year the administration did list Shekau and two other individuals in the group as “specially designated global terrorists” under an executive order, although critics in Congress said the move did not go far enough.
In response to queries, a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that that U.S. “remains deeply concerned” about the Boko Haram threat and was “working closely with the Nigerian government to address the growing threat of violent extremism.”
“We are committed to taking any and all steps toward countering Boko Haram as long as we believe such steps will be effective in advancing U.S. interests and objectives.”
The spokesperson also pointed to a State Department offer of a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to the location of Shekau.
Counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria included strengthening its criminal justice system, “information-sharing, enhancing security force professionalism to increase public confidence in Nigeria’s security response, and improving Nigeria’s forensics and investigative capacity.”
“Our assistance also stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are protected and respected.”
The provision of some $3 million in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria last year aimed to help develop its capability in dealing with improvised explosive devices, and provide training in forensics, hostage negotiations and other skills. A resident legal advisor in Lagos and FBI agents have helped in bombing investigations.
“To counter the spread of violent extremist ideology and stem extremist recruitment efforts, the United States also supports programs and initiatives that provide positive alternatives to communities most at risk of radicalization and recruitment, including through vocational training,” the spokesperson said.
FTO designation will ‘enhance its status’
One month before the State Department designated the three Boko Haram leaders it received a letter from a group of U.S. scholars with Africa expertise arguing against listing the group as an FTO, saying do so would “legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services’ and “internationalize Boko Haram’s standing and enhance its status among radical organizations elsewhere.”
The academics also pointed out that designation would make it illegal for civil society organizations to interact with the group’s members, “even if the purpose of such contact was to persuade them to renounce violence.”
In that context they recalled former President Jimmy Carter’s response to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling upholding prohibitions on “material support” to terrorist groups. At the time Carter said that the ruling could criminalize his Carter Center’s “work to promote peace and freedom.”
In the past, some U.S. officials have played down religion as a main motivation for Boko Haram’s violent campaign. Then-assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson told a U.S. Senate hearing in March 2011 that religion was “not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria,” and said Boko Haram was exploiting “the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.”
A year later, Carson told a Senate panel that Boko Haram remains “primarily focused on discrediting the Nigerian government.”
At his confirmation hearing last month, the new U.S. ambassador to Nigeria James Entwistle said in written testimony Boko Haram and other extremist groups “have killed hundreds of political and security officials and attacked civilians who have congregated peacefully in mosques, churches, and places of business.”
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, requirements for FTO designation are that a group is foreign; that it engages in terrorist activity or retains the capability and intent to do so; and that the activity threatens the security of American national or the national security of the U.S.
Terror activity is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”