As Nigeria’s newly elected President Bola Tinubu takes stock of what lies ahead for him, he faces the challenge of achieving a lasting peace and keeping civilians safe, an issue with which his predecessors significantly struggled. To finally accomplish this task, he’ll need to address the jihadist insurgency that has engulfed the country’s north for the last decade.
Despite a long-term military counterterrorism effort, Nigeria still ranks as the eighth most-affected country on the Global Terrorism Index. Because of the persistence of the problem, Tinubu will need all the help he can get, including from the United States. Thus—especially at a time when the Sahel and coastal West Africa are embroiled in ever-worsening security crises—it may seem illogical for the US State Department to remove Boko Haram, once considered the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).
However, this action is long overdue. To designate a group as an FTO, the State Department must demonstrate that 1) the group is a foreign organization, 2) the group is engaged in, or retains the capability and intent to engage in, terrorist activity and 3) this activity threatens US citizens, interests, or national security. The US secretary of state must revoke a listing if they find “that the circumstances that were the basis of the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant a revocation.”
Sure, the circumstances have not changed. But the circumstances never met these criteria to begin with because Boko Haram, one of Africa’s most well-known terrorist organizations, does not exist at all. Ultimately, “unlearning” this term will yield more accurate and valuable insights into the reality of the threat. Revoking the designation will set the United States and its partners on a more productive path toward finally resolving the violence in Nigeria.
The source of the misnomer
Around 2005, a fundamentalist Islamist sect emerged in northern Nigeria under the direction of Mohammed Yusuf. He began preaching a specific interpretation of the Quran, and one of his core arguments was that Nigerian Muslims should reject Western education and schools that had been introduced under British colonial rule. Because of this message, locals began calling him and his followers “Boko Haram,” which translates to “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. Outsiders used this phrase as a derisive term to refer to this secretive sect, their followers, and other suspected affiliates.
In 2009, Yusuf’s sect staged an uprising across several northern states following escalating tensions with the state police. Within a matter of days, the movement was essentially eliminated by security services in a brutal crackdown (killing approximately eight hundred members in just a few days) and Yusuf was taken into custody and then executed shortly after. Since then, several movements have emerged in the region. The most active group has been Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād (JAS), which was founded around 2010 under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. His organization is responsible for many of the murders and violent incidents in the country over the last decade. Several factions have split from JAS, including Ansaru in 2012, which later rejoined JAS and then splintered again. In 2016, a third group emerged that called itself Islamic State-West Africa Province. They have all, at various times, been active across the region.
What’s in a name?
“Boko Haram” doesn’t really fit into that history. From the first uses of the term to describe Yusuf’s sect, locals have repurposed the name to describe suspected fundamentalist and Islamist extremism in the region. All these operations and more, including a wide array of non-terrorist criminal and gang activity, have variously been attributed to “Boko Haram” by government officials, state security forces, journalists, and locals who lacked complete information about what they were describing.
In short, the use of the name survived even as the actual insurgent organizations in the region changed affiliations, splintered, or disbanded.
Thus, since the early years of the violence, many observers believed they were witnessing the rise of “Boko Haram,” but this perception did not correspond with the activity on the ground and the constellation of terrorist organizations (none of whom used the name) in the region. The ultimate challenge, therefore, isn’t just the use of the wrong name, but what it signifies: It gives an inaccurate impression that there is a singular operational group with a clear ideology and an organizational history. Researchers and experts have analyzed the activity in the region through this lens, bringing a host of largely unrelated activity under the umbrella of the supposed entity. In late 2013, when the State Department designated “Boko Haram” as an FTO, US decision makers seemed to be influenced by what the British anthropologist Ruben Andersson has called “the Timbuktu syndrome”—the mapping of the West’s jihadist fears onto the world’s less familiar peripheries.
Why delisting matters
The State Department’s FTO designation is essentially targeting a ghost. Delisting the organization would have several tangible benefits.
Most importantly, it would streamline the resources the United States dedicates to countering terrorist activity in northern Nigeria. An FTO designation unlocks new authorities for government agencies to target terrorists, but it also requires agencies to follow through and enforce these designations. Due to the host of violence and petty criminal activity that has mistakenly been attributed to “Boko Haram,” the United States is pouring resources into addressing unaffiliated crime and issues that fall solely under the jurisdiction of the Nigerian government without realizing any stabilizing counterterrorism benefits.
Removing “Boko Haram” and instead correctly listing JAS will also benefit the national research apparatus, including academic institutions, think tanks, and government agencies. Since the early years of the violence, independent researchers have helped shape the US approach toward “Boko Haram” and informed US counterterrorism strategies, including military involvement, intelligence collection, and humanitarian assistance. Researchers and academics have had no reason to question the existence of “Boko Haram” when conducting research on the region, which has allowed for persistent uncertainty to dominate the field. As a result, attempts to analyze the confusing array of activity and operations that have been linked to “Boko Haram” have yielded weak insights and less productive recommendations.
For example in 2021, two of the most influential and long-standing leaders in the region—Shekau and Abu Musab Al-Barnawi—were declared dead. For counterterrorism officials, whom Shekau had eluded for almost a decade, this development marked a welcome shift. With the en masse surrender of fighters formerly associated with JAS, some hoped that they had finally witnessed the end of “Boko Haram.” However, many scholars and experts believe that a fundamental aspect of the “group” is its perpetual adaptability, which in fact is largely driven by the loose application of the term to violent events in Nigeria. Thus media organizations, for example, are still publishing articles on new purported attacks by the “organization.” Absent a rejection of “Boko Haram,” the reliance on the term thus ultimately invites a perpetual motion of resurgence that leaves no real end to the violence in sight.
By delisting “Boko Haram,” the State Department will serve its own interests by setting new analyses and inquiries on the right track to accurately identifying terrorist activities and trends in the region. Without this change, there are two grim yet likely consequences. Counterterrorism research projects and resulting US strategies will continue to operate based on avoidable misconceptions and incomplete information on the violence. And more concerningly, without a real reckoning over the existence of the “group,” every new instance of violence in northern Nigeria risks becoming engulfed in the thickening fog of suspected “Boko Haram” activity.
The responsibility now lies with the global collective, and with these US State Department officials in particular, to consciously and deliberately unlearn the deep-seated belief in the “organization’s” very existence.
Alexandra Gorman is a young global professional with the Africa Center and is a masters’ candidate at Johns Hopkins University in the Global Security Studies program. As an undergraduate at Duke University, she received high honors on her senior thesis, “Nigeria’s Militant Jihadism in the Mirror of the Media: the Creation of ‘Boko Haram.’”
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