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Al Qaeda’s Nigeria Franchise

Why Hillary Clinton’s State Department downplayed Boko Haram.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The following day, April 30, 2012, John Brennan, who was then the senior counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, gave a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington. Brennan’s talk hinged on the idea that there is a discrete “core” of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that this nucleus of al Qaeda had become “a shadow of its former self.” Brennan said that “we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant.” While cautioning that al Qaeda’s “affiliates” remain something of a threat, Brennan argued that these organizations are on the decline, too, having lost “key commanders and capabilities as well.” Moreover, Brennan sought to distance these “affiliates” from the original “core” of al Qaeda that attacked us on September 11, 2001, saying al Qaeda’s “leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates.”

The hard distinction between al Qaeda’s “core” and “affiliates” does not really exist, but it is crucial to the administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. The core/affiliates model is a Western invention. In reality, al Qaeda has always been an international network of organizations and personalities. Not every jihadist group is part of al Qaeda, but many of them are. And al Qaeda has “core” leaders throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. While they likely have a significant degree of freedom in deciding how to go about their day-to-day business, these terrorists are still doing al Qaeda’s bidding. But if the number of groups dedicated to al Qaeda’s vision (at a minimum) has been growing—and it has been—then it is difficult for President Obama and his surrogates to argue that the 9/11 war is coming to an end. It is for this reason that some within the administration have invented a series of arguments intended to distance groups like Boko Haram from al Qaeda. The result has been uneven rhetoric and policies filled with basic contradictions.

For instance, not too far beneath Brennan’s triumphalist rhetoric about al Qaeda lies a subtle acknowledgment that things are, perhaps, not going so well after all. Thus, for example, Brennan said in his Wilson Center speech: “And in Nigeria, we are monitoring closely the emergence of Boko Haram, a group that appears to be aligning itself with al Qaeda’s violent agenda and is increasingly looking to attack Western interests in Nigeria, in addition to Nigerian government targets.” 

Still, Brennan cited bin Laden’s documents as evidence that the administration’s description of al Qaeda as a dwindling force was accurate. Brennan also announced that “some” of the al Qaeda master’s files “will be published online, for the first time, this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.” 

Indeed, the 17 documents mentioned above were published by the Combating Terrorism Center on May 3, 2012, along with an accompanying report that conveniently repeated the administration’s story-line about al Qaeda. None of the documents released to the public said anything about Boko Haram, despite the fact that just days earlier two high-profile newspapers had revealed the existence of communications between the group and al Qaeda’s senior leaders.

The overwhelming majority of bin Laden’s files, including those dealing with Boko Haram, remain locked away from the public. Therefore, we do not know what they say, exactly. We do know, however, that there is ample evidence tying Boko Haram to al Qaeda’s international network. Those ties have been formally recognized by the State Department, both during and since Clinton’s time in Obama’s cabinet, making her department’s refusal to designate the group itself all the more curious. 

In June 2012, Clinton’s State Department did designate three individual terrorists, including Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. The two other jihadists designated “have ties to Boko Haram and have close links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” State reported. One year later, after Clinton had left office, the State Department announced a $7 million reward for information leading to the capture of Shekau. The “Rewards for Justice” page for Shekau says that he has issued statements “expressing solidarity with al-Qaida and threatening the United States.” The same page reads: “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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.” AQIM, al Shabaab, and AQAP are all formal branches of al Qaeda and have sworn an oath of allegiance (bayat) to Ayman al Zawahiri.  

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