When Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for the more than 200 Nigerian girls held by the extremist group Boko Haram, she probably did not expect that her tenure as secretary of state would soon be critically examined by the press through the lens of that very same mass kidnapping. But examined it has been.
Clinton’s May 4 tweet, “Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism,” was accompanied by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Three days later, on May 7, Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast reported that Clinton’s State Department “fought hard against placing the al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations for two years.” Under the former first lady, Foggy Bottom resisted pressure from the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and over a dozen senators and congressmen—all of whom wanted Boko Haram designated a terrorist organization, Rogin reported.
James Meek and Dana Hughes of ABC News followed up, reporting that State Department officials objected to the designation because they didn’t believe that Boko Haram is a “transnational threat outside of Nigeria or a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.” Eli Lake, Rogin’s colleague at the Daily Beast, found that the debate over Boko Haram is indicative of wider disagreements over the extent of al Qaeda’s international network. (Lake cited this author, but mainly others.) And Michael Hirsh of Politico echoed the theme, mentioning U.S. officials who said that the failure to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization was “partly rooted in a larger effort by the Obama administration to narrowly define al Qaeda and deemphasize the rise of its new affiliates, especially in Africa.” This also helps explain the Obama administration’s failure to identify the enemy who struck on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, Hirsh added.
Regardless of the extent of Boko Haram’s ties to al Qaeda, the organization deserved to be designated during Clinton’s tenure. Boko Haram has terrorized civilians, including Africans and Westerners, Christians and Muslims, throughout Nigeria. And whether or not Boko Haram is under the operational control of al Qaeda’s top leaders, the group openly advocates al Qaeda-style jihad. But that is not the whole story. There is, in fact, evidence linking Boko Haram to al Qaeda’s leadership.
While State Department officials were trying to ignore Boko Haram’s al Qaeda ties in 2011 and 2012, other parts of the Obama administration were sitting on files showing that al Qaeda’s senior leaders had been in direct contact with the group.
Hundreds of thousands of documents and files were recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in early May 2011. The Obama administration has released only 17 of them, plus a handful of videos, to the public. According to U.S. intelligence officials, some of the files that remain in the administration’s possession catalog al Qaeda’s dealings with the ultraviolent Nigerian group.
On April 27, 2012, the Washington Post reported that bin Laden’s files “show that through his couriers, bin Laden was in touch not only with al Qaeda’s established affiliates but also with upstarts being groomed for new alliances. Among them was Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a group that has since embraced al Qaeda and adopted its penchant for suicide attacks.”
Two days later, on April 29, 2012, the Guardian ran its own account explaining the contents of the files. “Bin Laden appears to have been in direct or indirect communication with [the] Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram as well as many other militant outfits,” the Guardian reported. “As with the Taliban, the question of whether Boko Haram . . . is in touch with al Qaeda or one of its affiliates has been hotly debated by analysts.” Nonetheless, “documents in the cache show that leaders of the Nigerian group had been in contact with top levels of al Qaeda in the past 18 months.” The Guardian added that the description of bin Laden’s files it was given by intelligence officials confirmed claims made by a senior Boko Haram figure earlier that same year.