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.
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.
Boko Haram itself was finally designated by the State Department in November 2013. The designation recognized Boko Haram’s “links to” AQIM and responsibility “for thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria over the last several years including targeted killings of civilians.” And in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, published on April 30 of this year, Foggy Bottom again noted that Boko Haram “at times has received assistance, including funds and training, from” AQIM.
Despite these well-documented links between Boko Haram and al Qaeda’s network, there are still some who try to play disconnect the dots between the two. A key argument made at the State Department was that Boko Haram is purely a “local” group that shouldn’t be lumped in with al Qaeda’s “global” jihad. Such games do not help America craft sound counterterrorism policy. They obfuscate what is plain to see.
Even Hillary Clinton has said as much. During congressional testimony in January 2013, Rep. Tom Cotton asked Secretary Clinton if various jihadists in Africa should be considered al Qaeda. “Whether they call themselves al Qaeda or Boko Haram or Ansar al Sharia, they are all part of the same global jihadist movement,” Clinton responded. Unfortunately, the State Department did not act that way until after her term as secretary of state had ended.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.