A recent Union Leader editorial suggested Fmr. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) were partly to blame in failing to prevent the mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram, because they did not designate the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2012. However, Clinton was the first to designate top Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, and many international organizations and experts on Africa agreed that designating the group as an FTO at that time was premature, as it would cut off foreign aid to the region, negotiation lanes with the group, and raise the profile of the organization.
The May 14 editorial accused Secretary Clinton and Senator Shaheen of delaying FTO designation of Boko Haram in an attempt to protect President Obama's al Qaeda-focused foreign policy agenda. The editorial continued by praising then-Senator Scott Brown's sponsoring of a 2012 bill seeking to list Boko Haram as an FTO, and claiming Secretary Clinton and Senator Shaheen were unwilling to prevent a "real war on women":
Designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, like admitting Benghazi was a terror attack, would have undermined -- during a presidential election year -- the President's narrative that he had curtailed the spread of Islamist terror. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee aided the President by killing the Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act. Shaheen, ever the loyal partisan, sat in silence as a few senators tried in vain to weaken the group that two years later would kidnap hundreds of schoolgirls in an actual war on women, not the imaginary one in which Democrats accuse Scott Brown of taking part.
What does Scott Brown have to do with this? He was the sponsor of the Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act. The man who tried in vain to stop a real war on women and on education (Boko Haram means Western Learning Forbidden) is accused of being anti-woman by allies of a senator who did nothing to stop those wars.
Despite the attempt by the Union Leader to cast Scott Brown as the real hero by attacking Shaheen and Clinton, the paper glossed over key facts which explain why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Secretary Clinton decided, at the time, not to designate the group an FTO.
In 2012, when the Brown-endorsed Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act was being considered, twenty five regional experts and academics, led by American University professor and Nigeria expert Carl LeVan, wrote to Secretary Clinton to express their concerns about the premature designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. In their letter, the consortium expressed their collective concern over Boko Haram's violent actions and practices but also warned the Secretary that FTO designation could prevent non-governmental organizations seeking to help the victims of Boko Haram's brutality from doing so as "such contact would constitute providing 'material support' to terrorist organizations":
Should Boko Haram be designated an FTO through this regime, it would be illegal for non-governmental organization to interact with members of Boko Haram - even if the purpose of such contact was to persuade them to renounce violence. The US Supreme Court upheld these restrictions in 2010, declaring that such contact would constitute providing "material support" to terrorist groups. Commenting on the threat this poses to the Carter Center, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said this legal restriction "threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence." It would therefore be illegal for third party intermediaries to play a role in some future peace process or in the confidence building measures required to get there.
The reluctance to call Boko Haram a terrorist organization also allowed the United States the ability to keep open lanes of negotiation and use soft power diplomacy, something designating the group an FTO would have effectively ended. As Sadika Hameed and Kathy Gilsinan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained after the Obama administration declared Pakistan's Haqqani Network a terrorist organization, the declaration of a groups terrorist involvement is left to the discretion of Secretary of State to judge "the most appropriate way to mitigate a given threat" to ensure all diplomatic avenues are open, noting that by declaring the Haqqani Network a terrorist organization, the United States likely ended the possibility of finding a common ground solution with them:
Yet the relevant law does not require a designation for all groups that meet the criteria. FTO designation is deliberately left to the discretion of the secretary of state and reflects his or her judgment about the most appropriate way to mitigate a given threat. As a report by the Congressional Research Service explains, "There may be competing priorities in dealing with a group, such as a desire to engage a group in negotiations or to use the FTO naming as leverage for another foreign policy aim." The Taliban's continuing absence from the FTO list, despite also meeting the criteria, is one reflection of these competing priorities.
It is unclear whether the Haqqanis would have been willing to negotiate a settlement with the United States, but backdoor talks between the United States and the Haqqanis over the past year indicate that there might have been some common ground. Designation likely forecloses the possibility of finding it, however. As for U.S.-Pakistan relations more generally, both sides have taken pains to underplay the impact of the move, but it is a relationship that can ill afford further strain.
Far from ending the group's activities, designating a group an FTO sometimes can have the opposite effect. As Nnamdi Obasi, an expert on Nigeria working for the International Crisis Group told the BBC, designation as a terrorist group by the US "could also further radicalize the movement and push it to strengthen international linkages with other Islamist groups" thereby defeating the purpose of the designation.
The argument that an earlier FTO designation would have prevented the kidnappings is also flawed, as the United States did place Boko Haram on the FTO list in late 2013, five months prior to the kidnapping.