Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria, was called a terrorist organization by Secretary of State John Kerry last week.
At the 50th anniversary Summit for the African Union celebrations, Secretary Kerry referred to Boko Haram not as a “terrorist group” in typical State Department–approved terms but as an outright “terrorist organization.” The distinction between calling Boko Haram an “organization” and not a “group” may seem trivial, but it matters. The legal designation of “terrorist organization” allows the U.S. government to combat terrorism by naming and shaming violent actors and eliminating their sources for funding.
Most likely it was a slip of the tongue, since Boko Haram is currently not designated as a terrorist organization, but this mistake highlights how little credence is given to serious threats against our own national security and that of our partners. Boko Haram is a terrorist organization and should be legally designated as one.
The magnitude of the security threat posed by terrorism in Africa is large and growing. Organizations such as Boko Haram, whose terrorist attacks since 2009 have resulted in thousands of deaths, seriously threaten regional stability in West Africa. The region is also enduring the spillover violence from terrorist activities in Mali and Libya. Last week, Niger became a victim of this violence when a terrorist attack on a French-owned mine killed 30 people.
Terrorist attacks in Africa might be occurring in separate locations, by different organizations, but they are not unrelated. For instance, al-Qaeda is believed to support African Islamist groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and it has been linked to terrorist plots in Kenya, Tanzania, Libya, and other nations.
Addressing the threat of terrorism in Africa alongside Secretary Kerry, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom appropriately declared that terrorism “is now a serious threat to Africa.… And what’s happening in Niger is not isolated incidents. We have to see it in relation to what has happened—what’s happening in Mali and the whole south of Niger.”
Secretary Kerry had an opportunity to engage these issues head-on, but he passed at the expense of U.S. national security. He instead chose to limit the focus of his remarks to economic growth and diplomatic relations with the continent.
Terrorism in Africa matters to U.S. national security not only because it harms our friends in Africa; these organizations are often linked to global networks that directly threaten the United States. What Kerry failed to recognize when he mentioned the diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian elements of U.S. engagement on the continent was simply that without security, none of the above are possible. Such engagements will only be marked with marginal, short-term successes if security challenges are not directly addressed by U.S. leadership in partnership with African governments.
When President Obama visits the continent in late June, he’ll hopefully give the threat of terrorism the attention that it warrants instead of just a slip of the tongue.