After lengthy advocacy from both human rights and Christian groups, the U.S. State Department has officially designated the Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization.
“The State Department is right to finally respond to the calls of many in the international community who see this designation as clearly needed,” Benjamin Bull, chief counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, said Nov. 14. “Terrorist groups must not be allowed to engage in genocidal terror, especially when available steps can be taken to help curtail such violence.”
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful,” seeks to overthrow the Nigerian government and impose Shariah law throughout the country. It has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on Christians and is reportedly involved with rebels and terrorist groups in the region.
Over the years, Boko Haram has been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2,800 people according to Human Rights Watch, including more than 690 in 2012, according to the Associated Press.
Emmanuel Ogebe, a legal expert on Nigeria with the Jubilee Campaign, said that although it took “a long time” for the State Department to agree with other federal departments and Congress, “the time has come to help bring an end to this senseless violence.”
The Department of State announced Boko Haram’s new designation Nov. 13. A spokesperson said that “Boko Haram has been conducting an ongoing and brutal campaign against Nigerian military, government, and civilian targets.”
The U.S. government said the group’s “indiscriminate attacks” in Benisheikh, Nigeria in September 2013 killed more than 160 civilians, including women and children. It conducted a suicide bombing of the U.N. building in Abuja in August 2011, killing 21 people and injuring dozens more.
The Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru has raided a police station, ambushed a convoy of Nigerian peacekeepers, and conducted several kidnappings of foreigners.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s 2012 report ranked Boko Haram the second most deadly terrorist group in the world, surpassed only by the Taliban of Afghanistan.
Official designation of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist group allows the U.S. government to freeze or seize its bank accounts, to deport its members and associates, and to sanction the group’s supporters.
The U.S. government’s longtime failure to designate the group as terroristic had drawn criticism.
“Thousands of lives have been lost in this largely silent slaughter in Nigeria at the blood-thirsty hands of Boko Haram,” Ogebe said.
He said the State Department has denied Boko Haram’s religious motivations, which he says is “disingenuous” and an impediment to analyzing the group’s threat.
Alliance Defending Freedom and the Jubilee Campaign co-authored a July 2013 report on Boko Haram and authored a formal petition seeking its designation as a terrorist group.
Nigerian newspaper The Guardian said that Pentecostal pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, played a critical role in exposing the double standard in U.S. policy. He testified before Congress in favor of the new designation.
The Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans has also worked to change the policy.
The State Department said the new designation is “only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government.”
It said the Nigerian government must counter Boko Haram and Ansaru through law enforcement, political and development efforts and military engagement “to help root out violent extremism while also addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria.”
State Department officials said that the lengthy period to declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization was due to its “extensive process of review and research” that included consultations with the Nigerian government and other partners, the Nigerian Guardian reports.
Boko Haram is suspected in the recent kidnapping of French priest Father Georges Vandenbeusch, who founded a shelter for Christians fleeing the terrorist group.
The priest was kidnapped the night of Nov. 13/14 in northern Cameroon near Koza, less than 20 miles from the Nigerian border. The 42-year-old priest was taken by about 15 English-speaking gunmen, BBC News says.
French officials say Fr. Vandenbeusch had been notified of the danger of remaining in Cameroon, but nevertheless “chose to remain in his parish to carry out his work.”
Fr. Vandenbeusch is a priest of the Diocese of Nanterre, in France, and had been a missionary in the Diocese of Maroua-Mokolo since September, 2011.
In his most recent letter to the Nanterre diocese, Fr. Vandenbeusch had written: “But be assured the security here is good, because Cameroon is a refuge for persecuted Islamists (from Nigeria) … apart from the removal of the French family in February, they do not have demands or 'battles' to conduct here, at least for now.”
The emeritus bishop of Nanterre, Bishop Gerard Daucourt, has directed that Fr. Vandenbeusch be remembered at all Masses in the diocese, and has encouraged Eucharistic adoration for his safe return, as well.
The priest's abduction is the latest in a series of such cases targeting Westerners in recent months.
In February, a French family of seven were kidnapped, also in northern Cameroon. They were released after two months and the payment of a more than $3 million ransom. At the time of the kidnapping, French president Francois Hollande said, “I see the hand of Boko Haram in that part of Cameroon.”
The same month, seven foreign employees of a construction company in northern Nigeria were abducted; nine polio vaccinators were murdered; and a moderate Muslim leader was attacked and his bodyguards killed.
In December, 2012, a French engineer was abducted near Katsina, in Nigeria's far-north, by Ansuru.