The Corner

The Academic Obfuscation Behind Not Designating Boko Haram a Terrorist Organization

Andy explains below the controversy over how Hillary Clinton and the State Department of which she was head pushed back against attempts to give a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” designation to Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group that horrified the world recently by apparently kidnapping hundreds of teenaged girls.

The idea, essentially, was that making such a designation could feed the legitimacy of Boko Haram and internationalize what was a domestic terror group. Andy’s right that this makes little sense — not least because, unless our counterterror efforts are absolutely worthless, designating the organization should harm its ability to fundraise, operate, etc. a lot more than it will boost recruitment.

But there was a legitimate point there, and it was supported by a wide swath of academic experts on conflict and on Africa. ThinkProgress points out that 20 academics signed a letter to Secretary Clinton in 2012 objecting to designating Boko Haram — you can read it here. They have a few practical objections — designation could create problems for humanitarian organizations, for instance – but they also make the broader argument that State did: that BH should be viewed as a local organization, in some sense just a criminal racket, that can be addressed through engagement and economic development.

Sometimes this is a legitimate way to view conflict and terrorism. It’s even so cases where we believe the ideology has to be confronted head on and engagement is pointless (and when, as Tom Joscelyn pointed out, a domestic group like BH is already showing interest in international allegiances). Thinking about how these organizations can be looked at like criminal syndicates, how they can follow industrial and political patterns of organization and recruitment, etc. is useful. Recognizing that they are very different from an ordinary enemy, though, shouldn’t mean that we forget we’re still fighting a war.

If you only rely on these insights, you might end up basically suggesting we should close our counterterror agencies and just open some new NGOs. The group of academics cites Secretary Clinton’s husband becoming sympathetic to this:

During a visit to Nigeria in February, former president Bill Clinton commented on the security crisis there by concluding that “it is almost impossible to cure a problem based on violence with violence.” A lasting solution to Boko Haram will require robust political and developmental components initiated by the Nigerian government and broadly endorsed by the Nigerian people through democratic processes that enhance the rule of law​.

Not the secretary of ’splainin’ stuff’s finest moment. Andy’s right that there’s obviously some squeamishness, in the Obama administration and in the world of academics that influence it, about recognizing the role of Islam and ideology here (and some squeamishness about violence, too). That’s most of the explanation as to why they’re eager to look at BH as a racket or a political movement rather than part of a violent global ideology. But I think there’s something else going on too, a perverse result of the useful way academics look at conflict. We’ve learned tremendous amounts from academic inquiry into the economic aspects of violent conflict. A parallel kind of step forward, for instance, came from how Gary Becker, the Nobel economics laureate who passed away this week, suggested that crime can be thought of as a rational choice. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the kind of discourse that looks past ideology. (I’m also not saying that the academics who produce these insights don’t understand or value ideology themselves — some or most of them surely do.)

But academics engaged in this kind of work aren’t going to be the people to remind us that, when we have to decide whether this is a war or not, Boko Haram is a manifestation of a global program that’s about theological imperialism, not political grievances and economic incentives. The fact that academics can see aspects of the latter in BH doesn’t mean State should consider that a dispositive insight or the right lens to use here.

One of the best specific pieces of evidence for this, by the way, should be obvious to these area experts: Islamic fundamentalism has tormented West Africa for hundreds of years. Nigeria’s dysfunction today has something to do with Boko Haram, but it’s a classic academic move to mistake that insight for a defining truth.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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