The State Department announced today that Boko Haram, a prolific terrorist and insurgency group based in Nigeria, has been added to the U.S. government’s list of designated terrorist entities. Ansaru, a Boko Haram “splinter” group, was also added to the designation list. Boko Haram has targeted civilians, the Nigerian government, Western interests, and the U.N. In the process, the group has killed thousands of Muslims and Christians, often in suicide bombings.
Although Boko Haram is quite obviously a terrorist organization, nearly two dozen academics have advocated against the State Department’s designation. In a May 21, 2012, letter to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the academics recognized Boko Haram’s “horrific violence,” but argued that the designation would do more harm than good. They claimed, for instance, that the designation “would internationalize Boko Haram’s standing and enhance its status among radical organizations elsewhere.”
This and related arguments were apparently taken seriously by U.S. officials despite the fact that Boko Haram’s jihadi reputation had already risen dramatically. Boko Haram’s leaders have not hidden their affinity for al Qaeda. And there is ample evidence that Boko Haram has been operating within al Qaeda’s sphere of influence.
Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani safe house reportedly show that the al Qaeda master was in contact with the Nigerian group. Nearly one year after bin Laden was killed, and before the academics’ letter was published, the Washington Post reported that the al Qaeda CEO “was in touch not only with al Qaeda’s established affiliates but also with upstarts being groomed for new alliances,” including Boko Haram.
Likewise, the Guardian (UK) reported that bin Laden’s files show contacts between the Nigerian group and al Qaeda’s senior leaders.
In early May 2012, the Obama administration released a tiny subset – just 17 documents and a handful of videos – out of the massive cache of documents and files recovered in bin Laden’s lair. As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has previously reported, hundreds of thousands of documents and files were recovered during the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The documents dealing with al Qaeda’s ties to Boko Haram were not included in the administration’s release, however.
Even absent the release of more of bin Laden’s files, Boko Haram’s place within the al Qaeda network is well-established. While not a formal al Qaeda affiliate, Boko Haram has strong ties to known al Qaeda actors and organizations.
The U.S. government has offered a $7 million reward for information leading to the capture of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. In its reward notice, the U.S. government recognized the ties between Boko Haram and three established al Qaeda affiliates. There “are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabaab, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.”
Among the justifications for today’s designation, the State Department cited Boko Haram’s “links” to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). When it designated three Boko Haram leaders last year, the State Department similarly noted that they have “have close links to” AQIM. Indeed, Boko Haram has fought alongside AQIM and allied groups in Mali.
In July of this year, the UN reported that Boko Haram fighters had been trained in a Shabaab camp in Sudan. Shabaab officially became an al Qaeda branch, or affiliate, in February 2012. According to the UN’s well-placed source, the Boko Haram members were trained by a terrorist “specifically tasked by” al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri to provide instruction to jihadists in Africa.
None of this should be terribly surprising. Boko Haram’s leaders have openly proclaimed their allegiance to the al Qaeda-led global jihad.
In July 2010, Abubakar Shekau released a video message lionizing a pair of al Qaeda commanders who had been killed in Iraq. It was one of Shekau’s first messages as Boko Haram’s new leader.
“By Allah, they rose, did jihad, and fought in order for the faith to be entirely for Allah,” Skekau said of the al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group. “It was for this that they rose, it was for this that they fought, and it was for this that they died.”
Calling the pair “martyrs,” Shekau went on to warn: “Do not think jihad is over. Rather jihad has just begun. O America, die with your fury.”
Since that July 2010 message, Shekau has continued to openly praise al Qaeda.
In January 2012, the Guardian published an interview with Boko Haram’s spokesman, Abu Qaqa, who said “the group's members were spiritual followers of al Qaeda, and claimed they had met senior figures in the network founded by Osama bin Laden during visits to Saudia Arabia.” Abubakar Shekau was part of the group that met with al Qaeda representatives in Saudi Arabia, according to Abu Qaqa.
"Al Qaeda are our elder brothers,” Abu Qaqa told the Guardian. “During the lesser Hajj [apparently in August 2011], our leader travelled to Saudi Arabia and met al Qaeda there,” Abu Qaqa claimed. “We enjoy financial and technical support from them. Anything we want from them we ask them.”
In recent months, still more evidence indicating that Boko Haram is well-situated within al Qaeda’s global network has surfaced.
Among the groups communicating with Zawahiri: Boko Haram.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.