WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department is debating the wisdom of designating the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram a “foreign terrorist organization” despite entreaties from lawmakers and the Justice Department to do so.
U.S. diplomats are giving serious consideration to the arguments of a group of academics who sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week urging her department not to apply the “terrorist” label to the al Qaeda-linked group.
The professors said Boko Haram’s violent tactics have “turned most Nigerians against them,” and their reputation among other militants might be enhanced by a “terrorist” designation.
U.S. action might also validate the position of more radical elements of Boko Haram, which is divided into factions, the professors said.
The academics also argued that any U.S. move to label Boko Haram as a terrorist group would “effectively endorse excessive use of force” against the group by Nigerian security forces “at a time when the rule of law in Nigeria is in the balance.”
Abuses by Nigerian security forces already have “facilitated radical recruitment,” the professors said.
A group of Republican senators led by Scott Brown of Massachusetts introduced legislation on Thursday that would require the State Department to determine whether Boko Haram should be formally labeled a “foreign terrorist” group.
The designation would subject it to economic sanctions, including the freezing of U.S. bank accounts, and would make it illegal for anyone in the United States to provide support to the group.
Brown said the group had allegedly been responsible for more than 700 deaths in the last 18 months.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the group had been improving the design of its homemade bombs, which constitute a “serious threat to international and U.S. interests.”
In the House of Representatives, Republican Patrick Meehan, who chairs a subcommittee on homeland security, has introduced an amendment that would force the administration to add Boko Haram to the terrorism list or explain why it was not doing so.
A congressional source said State Department representatives are lobbying Congress to stop such legislation.
U.S. government sources confirmed that the academics’ arguments are being taken seriously at the State Department, where they have featured in internal discussions about the “terrorist” designation.
Last week, a senior State Department official told Reuters the department was “very concerned about violence in Nigeria” and added that it was “looking at this very carefully.”
The official said the department was “not stalling or dragging our feet.” But he noted that adding a group to the sanctions list is a “rigorous process which has to stand up in a court of law.”
A. Carl Levan, an American University scholar who helped organize the letter to the State Department, said human rights groups had called attention to alleged “excesses” by Nigerian security forces, and said future abuses might only be encouraged if the United States puts a “terrorist” label on Boko Haram.
He also said that the principal legal consequence of an FTO designation -- giving U.S. authorities the ability to freeze the group’s assets and take legal action against people who support it -- would have little effect, since “when they need money they rob a bank.”
Officially, the State Department will only say that it is considering all the options.
“Working with the Nigerian government to address the growing threat of violent extremism in Nigeria is a top priority for the administration,” said a spokeswoman for the department’s Africa bureau.
The official added: “On the question of designating Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)...the Department does not comment in advance on such decisions. I can assure you, however, that the Department is reviewing all options with regards to Boko Haram, including designation as an FTO.”
In January, the top counter-terrorism official at the Justice Department weighed in with the State Department in favor of an early move to impose U.S. sanctions on the group.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a letter to the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief that Boko Haram met the criteria for a “foreign terrorist” listing because it either engages in terrorism which threatens the United States or has a capability or intent to do so.
Monaco said that although Boko Haram attacks until now have occurred only within Nigeria, the United States should not underestimate the threat the group poses to U.S. interests. Reuters reported earlier this month on her letter, which was not released to the public.
This is not the only case in which Congress and the administration are at odds over “foreign terrorist” designations.
Several members of Congress, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein, have been pressing the State Department for a terrorist designation for the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has been linked to the Taliban and attacks against U.S. interests in Afghanistan.
Some U.S. officials say the State Department has resisted adding the Haqqani group to the list on the grounds that the move might complicate diplomatic efforts to arrange some kind of peace deal between militants and the Afghan government.
Editing by Susan Cornwell and Jim Loney