The United States has formally designated Nigerian militant groups Boko Haram and Ansaru as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, the White House said in a statement.
The groups have been responsible for thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria, including attacks on churches and mosques and a 2011 suicide bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja, the statement said.
“By cutting these terrorist organizations off from US financial institutions and enabling banks to freeze assets held in the United States, these designations demonstrate our strong support for Nigeria’s fight against terrorism and its efforts to address security challenges in the north,” Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s top homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser, said in the statement.
“We encourage Nigeria to pursue a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach that uses law enforcement tools effectively, creates economic opportunity, and ensures that human rights are protected and respected,” she said.
The designation is significant because it directs US law enforcement and regulatory agencies to block business and financial transactions with Boko Haram, which wants to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria and has ties to al Qaeda.
The move makes it a crime under US law to provide “material support” to the group. A State Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Boko Haram and other splinter Islamist groups are seen as the biggest security threat in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and top oil exporter.
In May, President Goodluck Jonathan increased a military campaign against Boko Haram. His government said last week that it has killed 70 civilians.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which a source said has been notified of the decision, has scheduled a hearing on the group for Wednesday.
“The likelihood of more hearings on this issue may have been a final straw in encouraging the State Department to acknowledge something which has been apparent for some time – the growing relationship between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” said US Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who convened his own hearing on the issue.
Meehan chairs a Homeland Security subcommittee, not a Foreign Affairs committee, and has not been briefed by the State Department. “Boko Haram is of growing influence and of major concern,” he said.
Last year, the Justice Department’s senior top national security official, Lisa Monaco, sent a letter to the State Department arguing that Boko Haram met the criteria to be listed as a “foreign terrorist” group because, she said, it either engages in terrorism that threatens the United States or has a capability or intent to do so.
Monaco is now President Barack Obama’s top White House counter-terrorism advisor.
Although the State Department later designated three alleged Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, it stopped short of a more sweeping declaration against the organization.
For two years, Meehan and Rep. Peter King of New York have pressed the State Department to put Boko Haram on its list of terrorist groups alongside the likes of al Qaeda and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
They have warned that an August 2011 attack on a U.N. building in Abuja, Nigeria, marked a turning point as a threat to US interests.
Meehan has noted that the United States did not perceive al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a threat to U.S. interests until after the attempting downing of an airliner by a Nigerian near Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.