Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money donors appeared to thwart efforts to combat Boko Haram—efforts that might have saved thousands of lives
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WASHINGTON—Just hope you’re never trapped inside the work of a suicide bomber. Victims say the first sensation is not the sound of a powerful explosion but the ear-splitting suck of air going out of the room, of every noise imaginable concentrated into a tiny, painful point in the middle of your skull—all before the terrifying and truly deafening fright of the actual explosion. The force and flash will knock you to the floor, leave you breathless for minutes, sightless at least a bit longer, deaf for longer still, perhaps a lifetime, and forever traumatized. That’s if you survive, aren’t dismembered or diced fatally by a thousand shrapnel pricks. In the seconds after you realize you’ve just been bombed and become aware you are still breathing, you will have to live agonizing minutes of terror longer as you learn whether others you know survived. And that’s before the building around you starts to collapse.
The bombing of the UN headquarters in Nigeria happened just this way. On a sultry Friday, Aug. 26, 2011, at 10:30 in the morning, a Honda CR-V with tags from Nigeria’s northern Kano State tore through two separate gates of the compound in the capital, Abuja, and drove its way into the sprawling five-story building where it exploded. Glass shattered and the concrete structure’s first three floors collapsed, plunging dozens of staff members plus the suicide bomber and his car into the basement below.
Fire erupted from the car, soon a cindered mass of metal. Flames rose from the basement, blackening the building from bottom to top as smoke filled the neighborhood, which included the American embassy and other diplomatic posts. Rescue workers arrived, followed by police and soldiers. They flung ladders into a gaping hole, rescued bloodied survivors, and dragged them over bloodied steps to a grassy lawn strewn with body parts. At one point rescuers hauled over a nearby construction crane to assist fire crews trying to reach survivors on the upper floors.
“All the people in the basement were killed. Their bodies are littered all over the place,” said Ocilaje Michael, one of 400 UN staff members working in the complex, which also housed 26 affiliated humanitarian and development agencies.
Hours later, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack, its first on an international target. As word spread among the diplomatic community of an American who survived the attack inside the UN building, where she worked, many expected the United States and others to take stepped-up precautions to protect their own citizens and to combat terrorists in Nigeria. By all outward appearances, that’s not what happened.
The State Department never made public the presence of Vernice Guthrie, an African-American attorney who represented the American Bar Association in Nigeria before she took an assignment with the UN Development Program. And what followed the bombing were months stretching into years of uncharacteristic foot-dragging by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Amid interventionist stances on Libya, Syria, and other hot spots, Clinton resisted the pleas of lawmakers and the recommendations of both high-level officials and Pentagon brass to designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law.
Five years and many Freedom of Information Act filings later—including four filed by WORLD—no clear explanation exists for Clinton’s refusal to designate a terror group a terror group during her tenure as secretary of state. Further, given the controversy that’s unfolded over her decision, the State Department appears determined not to divulge documents pertaining to that decision—and some documents may be lost to Clinton’s now infamous in-home server.
While the full truth may never come to light, what’s at issue are long-standing Clinton ties to controversial Nigerian businessmen—billionaires who have donated money toward both Clintons’ presidential campaigns and the Clinton Foundation—who could benefit in seeing Boko Haram proliferate. Knowing whether she placed financial ties and influence peddling ahead of national security interests during that time period is more urgent than ever, now that the former secretary of state could become the commander in chief.
“We know Hillary Clinton is both a centrist and a hawk. Yet this became another example of her doing something that’s simply out of character, dragging her feet on confronting a terrorist group,” said Peter Schweizer, a former Hoover Institute fellow, whose 2015 bestseller, Clinton Cash, became the basis for a documentary premiering in May.
In the five years since the Abuja bombing, Boko Haram has morphed into the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, responsible for killing 10,000 people in 2015 alone. It linked its cause with Somalia’s al-Shabab, with al-Qaeda, and most recently with ISIS, or Islamic State—proclaiming a mimic caliphate in August 2014. Nigeria had experienced no suicide bombings before 2011, but last year endured 89. Boko Haram’s rapid expansion posed a serious threat to Nigeria’s more than 160 million residents, the most densely urbanized population in Africa. To date, the group’s attacks are responsible for displacing more than 2 million residents across Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and other states.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau continued to direct threats against the United States as well, including a threat in 2012 to assassinate U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Terence P. McCulley.
Had Washington designated Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) early on, the United States would have provided legal clarity and triggered enhanced military surveillance and financial tracking to stem the Islamist group’s growth. Clinton took none of those steps, instead actually blocking sales of U.S. helicopters to aid in counterterrorism. Such actions led newly installed President Muhammadu Buhari last year to complain the U.S. government “aided and abetted” Boko Haram.
“With Nigeria there isn’t a policy explanation that justifies her delaying here; it’s inconsistent with everything Hillary Clinton says she is for,” Schweizer told WORLD. “And people died and are still dying as a result.”
In all, Nigeria would report 23 persons dead and 116 injured in the Abuja bombing. President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton each issued statements the same day condemning the bombing, without mentioning an American survivor. Neither the bombing nor Guthrie were items in the following week’s daily press briefings at the State Department. Reporters didn’t know an American survived the attack, so they didn’t ask. As a result—although a five-person FBI team assisted the Nigerian investigation—the Justice Department did not include the August bombing in its “Terrorist Incident Designation List.” That meant Guthrie as a terror victim wasn’t eligible for benefits (like paid trauma counseling) under U.S. law.
‘Boko Haram had gained capabilities that needed to be addressed.’ —Gen. Carter Ham
OTHER, MORE BRUTAL bombings have taken place in Nigeria since 2011. But the UN bombing was a game-changer, according to the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Africa at the time, Gen. Carter Ham. He took charge of U.S. Africa Command in March 2011. Boko Haram’s alliance with al-Qaeda and other groups, Ham had told reporters a week before the UN bombing, presented “the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well.”
The UN attack, Ham recalled in an interview with WORLD, “signaled that Boko Haram had gained capabilities that needed to be addressed, and it was my view—and I was not alone—that we could best help Nigeria if we were able to employ the full suite of tools available to the U.S. government.”
At this time the United States was involved in a NATO-led military intervention in Libya, where the United States sided with a transitional government to oust leader Muammar Qaddafi. As a result, arms and mercenaries were flowing across Africa from Libya to (among other places) Nigeria, boosting groups like Boko Haram. In policy debates, the military stood accused of favoring military solutions, but Ham, who is now retired, said that’s not what he argued for in Nigeria.
“While military engagement might achieve near-term tactical successes, it cannot achieve the long-term objectives,” he said. The “most important” reason for FTO designation, in his view, “is financial tools that allow the Department of Treasury and others to subpoena and have access to records and more effectively impede and stop the flow of funding that fuel these terrorist organizations.”
Long after the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the CIA, the FBI, and lawmakers in both parties were all on the same page, State remained the only holdout—and even it was divided. The counterterrorism bureau argued in favor of an FTO designation, but the Africa bureau resisted pressure in debates that unfolded in front of Secretary Clinton on multiple occasions.
“At the time I thought FTO designation was not appropriate and made that recommendation—a recommendation I continue to stand by based on the circumstances at the time,” Johnnie Carson, then-assistant secretary for African affairs, told WORLD. He said FTO discussions dated as far back as late 2010: “We were taking the issue of Boko Haram very, very seriously, and we were looking at all sides of the issue.”
Clinton went along with those who argued Boko Haram was not a threat to U.S. interests. With Boko Haram pledging to establish an Islamic caliphate across West Africa, Carson repeatedly asserted “that religion is not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria.” FTO critics said a terror designation needlessly would raise the group’s profile. They claimed Boko Haram was not attacking foreigners and not using international finance.
Evidence gathered from interviews—which included Ham, five former U.S. ambassadors in Africa, numerous defense and intelligence experts, and Nigerian church leaders—plus State documents undercut each rationale.
Guthrie’s presence at the UN bombing, along with kidnappings of American citizens and other events, demonstrated threats to U.S. interests.
The State Department designated at least five lesser-known groups as terrorist organizations in the two years following the Abuja bombing.
WORLD obtained evidence showing Boko Haram operatives use sophisticated methods—including social media—to funnel illicit proceeds from Western sources through European banks and to northern Nigerian charities that push cash to militants. In one case (where WORLD saw documents on condition it not divulge details) a multinational corporation hired a private security team to locate what turned out to be a Boko Haram operative raising funds via online scamming.
STOPPING THE FLOW OF illicit funds is a tall order in a country like Nigeria, where systemic corruption has dogged one government after another. While Secretary Clinton stalled efforts to combat Boko Haram, former President Bill Clinton was making money on its home turf.
Clinton has given two of his three most lucrative overseas speeches in Nigeria—earning $700,000 each in fees in 2011 and in 2012. Hosting Clinton at both events: Nduka Obaigbena, a flamboyant Nigerian media mogul.
At another paid Obaigbena event in 2013, Clinton handed out checks to schoolteachers from Obaigbena after giving a speech about education. Later, the checks bounced. Recently, Obaigbena has come under ongoing scrutiny as part of a $2.1 billion arms scam.
Of the Clintons’ Nigerian associates, Obaigbena is the rule, not the exception—one of several wealthy donors to the Clinton Foundation and its affiliate, the Clinton Global Initiative, who are presently under scrutiny or facing criminal indictment.
The Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got its start in 1997, before President Clinton left the White House, ostensibly as a nonprofit group collecting funds for his presidential library. That purpose quickly shifted, and the foundation became essentially a clearinghouse for the Clintons to receive tax-exempt donations.
Hillary Clinton, whose campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests, served on the board of directors from March 2013 to April 12, 2015, when she launched her 2016 presidential bid. A Washington Post investigation last year revealed how the Clintons with decades in public life amassed a donor list of roughly 336,000 individuals, corporations, unions, and foreign governments. The Post concluded: “The Clintons’ fundraising operation—$3 billion amassed by one couple, working in tandem for more than four decades—has no equal.”
A “public charity,” the Clinton Foundation’s online roster shows programs in areas like global health, climate change, and business development, but there’s little on-the-ground evidence of it: In 2013 the Clinton Foundation took in $140 million and spent only $9 million on direct aid (under 7 percent). Tax-exempt charitable organizations, according to the IRS, “must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests,” yet over and over the foundation’s donors look more like a list of influence-seekers and power brokers in search of access to top government officials.
Meanwhile, the foundation has run afoul of the Better Business Bureau for failing to meet minimum standards of transparency and accountability. Charity Navigator dropped its evaluation of the foundation altogether, saying its “atypical business model can not be accurately captured in our current rating methodology.” More recently, Wall Street analyst Charles Ortel—whose investigation of GE accounting practices resulted in the conglomerate paying a $50 million fine to the SEC—announced in May more than 40 separate investigations into Clinton Foundation programs, telling WORLD they are “committing epic charity fraud.”
Nigeria—with the largest economy in Africa and hefty proven oil reserves—is fertile ground for opaque Clinton Foundation donors. It’s saying something that on a donor list including the State of Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Nigerian magnate Gilbert Chagoury ranks among top-tier givers. Chagoury has donated between $1 million and $5 million to the foundation and in 2009 pledged $1 billion to the affiliate Clinton Global Initiative.
Chagoury with his brother Ronald founded a construction, healthcare, and telecommunications conglomerate—the Chagoury Group—developing a reputation for corruption starting in the 1990s. Gilbert, an adviser to the late Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha, used his controlling interest in South Atlantic Petroleum to siphon off millions in oil sales. He and Abacha dumped the revenues in overseas bank accounts, allegedly helped by the head of Nigeria’s Petroleum Trust Fund at the time, current President Muhammadu Buhari. Central to the deal was American Marc Rich, the fugitive financier who bought up oil on the black market (evading U.S. sanctions, for example, to buy oil from Iran while it held 53 American hostages), funneling also Chagoury/Abacha oil receipts into foreign bank accounts.
Nigeria’s former top anti-corruption prosecutor Nuhu Ribadu alleges Chagoury steered more than $4 billion in illicit oil revenues into bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere. In 2000 Swiss authorities convicted Chagoury of money laundering, and he returned $300 million in fines (“a tithe,” according to one financial analyst) in exchange for legal immunity. Marc Rich by that time had long taken refuge in Switzerland (where he died in 2013), facing a 65-count criminal indictment for tax evasion in the United States. On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned Rich—a move even The New York Times in an editorial called “a shocking abuse of presidential power.”
Bill Clinton traveled with Chagoury on his first trip to Nigeria as president. The two have been photographed together multiple times there, including in 2013 to celebrate the opening of Eko Atlantic, a massive, $6 billion reclamation project the Chagoury brothers plan to make “the financial center of Africa in the near future.” When finished, the peninsula city built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean is supposed to accommodate some 250,000 residents in luxury high-rises and businesses poised to compete with a Gulf hub like Dubai. According to the project website, “The development is privately funded and supported by Nigerian banks in association with international investors.”
Chagoury was putting together investments in the project at the same time he made his $1 billion pledge to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). CGI at its annual meeting in New York in September 2009 awarded Chagoury a “commitment certificate,” even though it wasn’t clear what purpose or program his $1 billion pledge would serve. “Commitments” are the currency of CGI and “can be small or large and financial or non-monetary in nature,” according to the CGI website. The organization serves as “a catalyst for action,” the website reads, “but does not engage in actual implementation of commitments.”
At CGI’s 2009 annual meeting, President Obama made a surprise appearance at the opening session, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the featured closing speaker, talking about food security. She also thanked those making “exceptional commitments” to the foundation, according to the transcript posted on the State Department website.
As dredging and construction for Chagoury’s Eko Atlantic began—and would continue for years—any international sanction like the FTO designation was likely to dampen investors’ enthusiasm. A Center for a New American Security study found a decrease in investment activity—both foreign and domestic—is the primary effect of such U.S. scrutiny. Financial surveillance to hunt down terror networks may also bring to light everyday corruption. While FTO designation in Nigeria’s case was against an organization, not the state, it still would discourage investment.
Could Chagoury’s pledge have been aimed at influencing policy, a quid pro quo?
“He does nothing other than that,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria William Twaddell, a Bill Clinton appointee to the post from 1997 to 2000. He called Chagoury a “huge beneficiary” of Nigeria’s corruption problem. “I have no idea what he was doing with the Clinton Global Initiative, but it’s the sort of honey pot that he would try to get some benefit from.”
HILLARY CLINTON’S SUCCESSOR at the State Department, John Kerry, did approve the FTO designation for Boko Haram in November 2013, but there are few signs the Treasury Department has engaged in a serious investigation into the group’s financing. The prevailing narrative is Boko Haram is a localized terror threat that strictly funds its activities through robbing banks, pillaging villages, and other local thievery.
Chagoury is far from the only one to benefit from the lackluster response: Prominent, wealthy Nigerians Kase Lawal (who lives in Houston) and Bola and Adewale Tinubu have ties to the Clintons and also have faced charges of criminal wrongdoing. (Their entanglements will be the subject of a future article.)
Bola Tinubu proved useful in steering Nigeria’s election last year toward his party colleague and longtime associate Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Fulani Muslim who failed in three previous presidential bids. Buhari won election on a platform to fight terrorism and corruption. Who did his party hire to craft his disciplined campaign for change? AKPD, a Chicago-based consulting firm co-founded by David Axelrod—the chief architect of President Obama’s election victories and senior adviser at the White House until 2011.
AKPD’s quiet involvement has led stateside Nigeria observers to question whether electing Buhari was the endgame of the Obama administration’s policies. That’s a reasonable conclusion, according to Jacob Zenn, a Jamestown Foundation analyst and leading expert on Boko Haram: “It would be consistent with their view that observant Muslims, and in some cases Islamists, in power would be a bulwark against groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.”
Now a year into his presidency, Buhari has taken concrete steps to address corruption and terrorism, but some Nigerian church leaders remain skeptical: “The government has yet to prosecute anyone who has been involved with Boko Haram,” said A.B. Lamido, an Anglican bishop in northern Nigeria. “Who is responsible? They have to be brought to justice.”
—with research by Kristin Chapman and Amy Derrick
‘A police matter’
With terrorist attacks in Nigeria rising and countermeasures apparently tabled, WORLD on May 3, 2013, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department for documents related to the UN bombing, including information on Americans present. In March 2016, three years later, State provided 20 documents. While giving extensive details of the attack and noting “significant casualties,” none of the documents mentioned Vernice Guthrie or any American present at the bombing.
The department’s talking points for Nigerian officials stressed not overreacting to Boko Haram, encouraging Nigerian officials to “address this attack as a police matter” and “avoid excessive actions by security forces that raise human rights concerns.”
In June 2014, WORLD filed a similar request with the FBI, which declined to produce any documents on the grounds that it “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.” —J.C.D.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) got its start in the 1940s running the U.S.-led Marshall Plan. Today it’s a UN-affiliated organization combating bribery and graft, one of the hallmarks of its success in post–World War II Europe.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 appeared in an OECD video lauding its anti-bribery convention as “a milestone” encouraging “responsible and accountable governance.” She pledged U.S. support for its “anti-corruption agenda.”
The OECD Working Group on Bribery states, “Individuals and companies can also be prosecuted when third parties are involved in the bribe transaction, such as when someone other than the official who was bribed receives the illegal benefit, including a family member, business partner, or a favorite charity of the official.”
Based on the OECD’s definition of bribery, there does not need to be an explicit quid pro quo. That coincides with a 2009 ruling from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a corruption case: A quid pro quo does not require “a particular, identifiable act” when the funds were transferred. “Instead, it is sufficient if the public official understood that he or she was expected to exercise some influence on the payor’s behalf as opportunities arose.”
Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer, citing the case, concluded: “Friends, money, and politics are a dangerous cocktail. The Clintons should know to avoid this kind of drinking while driving U.S. policy.” —M.B.
See Part 2: “Fatal connections.”