Skip to main content

U.S. could have acted sooner on Boko Haram, official says

By Laura Koran, CNN
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Sat May 17, 2014
  • State Department official says there was debate within agency about terror designation
  • There was concern that terror label would bring Boko Haram more attention, status
  • The official said Boko Haram abductions in Nigeria are now a top U.S. priority
  • The timing of the terror label for Boko Haram has now become a political issue

Full coverage of CNN international correspondent Nima Elbagir's Chibok journey will screen on CNN International on Saturday 17 May at 2100 CET, Sunday 18 May at 0030 CET, 0400 CET and 1200 CET and Monday 19 May at 0730 CET.

(CNN) -- The United States could have acted sooner to designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, a State Department official told Congress on Thursday, adding that "resolving this crisis is now one of the highest priorities of the U.S. government."

Robert Jackson, the principal deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, told a Senate subcommittee that the initial debate within the State Department over a terror label "was really about the Nigerian attitude towards designation" for the Islamic extremist group that advocates Sharia law.

"The government of Nigeria feared that designating these individuals and the organizations would bring them more attention, more publicity and be counter productive," said Jackson. "For some time we accepted that point of view."

Pressed by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, Jackson acknowledged that "in retrospect, we might have done it earlier. I think the important thing is that we have done it and that we've offered a reward for the top leadership of Boko Haram's location."

Nigerian girl escapes from Boko Haram
Mother of missing girl: 'Our hearts hurt'
Nigerians take security into own hands
Nigeria: A stolen education

The group, which has claimed responsibility for kidnapping more than 200 school girls in northern Nigeria last month and threatening to sell them into slavery, was added to the terror list last November by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The timing of the action has triggered a political controversy around Hillary Clinton, who preceded Kerry as America's top diplomat and is weighing a potential run for president in 2016.

A formal terror designation provides greater access to a group's finances and more ability to limit its movements. Officials said Boko Haram does not have financing in the United States.

Some in Congress, the Justice Department and others called for the State Department to apply a terror label to Boko Haram in 2012 following a bombing in Abujat and amid growing concerns that it had al Qaeda links.

But the agency, then led by Clinton, rejected that approach. Officials cited the reasons raised by Jackson, which also included the possibility that doing so might heighten threats against U.S. and Western interests.

A letter to Clinton at the time by the 24 academics, including former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, also said such a move would raise the group's profile and possibly link the United States to abuses by Nigerian forces cracking down on the group.

Republicans are now seeking to use the Boko Haram terror case as well as the deadly September 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, to depict Clinton as complicit in what they argue is weakened foreign policy under President Barack Obama.

But former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who served under Clinton, told reporters last week that the convoluted socio-economic dynamics of Nigeria required a more holistic and nuanced approach than the security focus of anti-terrorism efforts.

"This is a very complex situation," he said.

Still, there was swift political reaction to Jackson's comments.

Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton rapid-response group, said "the facts are clear and hindsight doesn't change" things. It noted the State Department under Clinton placed three Boko Haram members on a terror blacklist.

The Republican National Committee also weighed in, saying Boko Haram was "another hard choice where Hillary made the wrong decision."

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Arwa Damon meets two young orphans, now in Niger, whose mother died years ago -- and whose father was killed in a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
A small river marks the border between Niger and Nigeria -- a shallow divide between security and the horrors of Boko Haram.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Arwa Damon reports that U.S. sources now believe Boko Haram insurgents may be hiding on the islands of Lake Chad.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Isha Sesay talks to journalist Aminu Abubakar who says approximately 500 people have been killed in northeastern Nigeria.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
A policeman stand beside children holding as members of Lagos based civil society groups hold rally calling for the release of missing Chibok school girls at the state government house, in Lagos, Nigeria, on May 5, 2014. Boko Haram on Monday claimed the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria that has triggered international outrage, threatening to sell them as
Police in Nigeria's capital Tuesday made a U-turn, saying a ban on protests in support of the more than 200 girls kidnapped in April does not exist.
updated 2:36 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
A top Nigerian official claims to know where the missing schoolgirls are located, as Arwa Damon reports.
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
Arwa Damon reports on Nigerian schools sitting empty as residents live in fear of Boko Haram.
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
A large part of northern and central Nigeria is now at the mercy of intensified attacks by Boko Haram, and the group seems to be embarking on a new phase of its campaign.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Half of a yellow sun poster
It's one of the most important Nigerian stories to hit the big screen -- yet the director says Nigeria's bureaucracy is purposely preventing its release.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Opinion: The media turns Boko Haram into 'superstar monsters' -- which is exactly what they want.
updated 8:24 AM EDT, Tue May 13, 2014
CNN's Nima Elbagir speaks with the mothers of two missing Nigerian schoolgirls.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
With fear in her eyes, a young woman tells CNN's Nima Elbagir, the first journalist to visit Chibok, how she fled gun-toting Islamic extremists.
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Over the last 20 years, the narrative on the African continent has shifted from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Women in repressive countries are fighting back against injustice, writes Frida Ghitis.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele, who recently directed Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Half of a Yellow Sun," discusses his remarkable journey.
updated 6:24 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Nigeria woke up to a brand new economy, apparently. But the country are suffering and its people responded with a hiss.
updated 5:00 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
At 23, many people around the world are still at university -- at that age, Gossy Ukanwoke had already started one.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Oprah, if you're reading this, for goodness sake return this woman's calls.
Are you in Nigeria? Share your thoughts on the schoolgirls' kidnapping, but please stay safe.