What is an 'FTO' designation?
This common classification became unusually controversial for Boko Haram while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state
WASHINGTON—Since 1997, the United States has designated 72 groups Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTOs, under provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, including groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas. The secretary of state makes the designations, and, using information gleaned from enhanced surveillance of FTOs, reports to Congress on potentially threatening terrorist activity.
Determining what groups are engaged in terrorist activity is not typically controversial, but the formal designation for Nigerian-based Boko Haram became a contentious issue from 2011 to 2013. Critics suspect then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the current presumptive Democratic nominee for president—of assisting family friends in Nigeria, which they believe led to the non-designation (see WORLD Magazine’s cover story “Troubling ties”). But some former State Department officials continue to justify and defend the decision to leave Boko Haram off the FTO list.
One thing is not debatable: Boko Haram metastasized into the world’s deadliest terrorist organization by 2014.
FTO designation is significant because it triggers investigations into terror financing, allows the placement of sanctions on group members and those who support them, and enables increased cooperation between U.S. authorities and the military. It’s also important for symbolic reasons, according to the top U.S. military commander in Africa at the time.
“It conveys the seriousness with which the U.S. government views such organizations,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led U.S. Africa Command from 2011 to 2013, told WORLD. “In so designating we convey to the Nigerian government that, ‘We believe Boko Haram is not only a threat to you, but a threat to us also.’”
FTO designation includes three legal requirements: A group must be foreign, engaged in terrorist activity, and a threat to U.S. nationals or interests. The first two criteria were not in dispute, but for years the State Department claimed Boko Haram carried only local grievances and posed no threat to the United States.
Critics of an FTO designation further argued it would have raised Boko Haram’s profile, hindered non-governmental organizations working in Nigeria’s north, and potentially damaged relations with the Nigerian government (which initially lobbied against the designation).
John Campbell, who was ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007 and one of the architects of the arguments against designating Boko Haram as an FTO, told me the case was a valid one: “I would maintain they still don’t meet the criteria. … What is different now is the Nigerian government concluded the designation would be helpful, and they dropped their opposition.”
John Kerry, Clinton’s successor as secretary of state, finally approved the FTO designation for Boko Haram in November 2013.
Katharine Gorka, president of the Threat Knowledge Group, which provides counterterrorism expertise to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, said the debate over designating Boko Haram as an FTO stands out as highly unusual.
“I’ve never seen one where there is this much internal division,” she said. “What I think was unique about this was so many people wanted it—[the Department of Defense] wanted it, the FBI wanted it, Congress wanted it—yet this resistance was coming from one place.”
The U.S. State Department was that “one place.” In line with public statements, issues such as economic inequality in Nigeria’s north dominated talks between top U.S. and Nigerian officials in the aftermath of the 2011 bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, according to State Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
As WORLD reports in its current cover story, that bombing included the presence of an American attorney, Vernice Guthrie—illustrating a threat to an American citizen some 27 months before the State Department classified Boko Haram as a terrorist organization.
In 2014, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., asked Kerry why, under Clinton, the State Department delayed a decision and downplayed a terror threat. Vitter’s letter pointed to multiple cases where the National Counterterrorism Center—a collaboration of the U.S. intelligence community—reported on specific Boko Haram terrorist activity, while the State Department’s reports to Congress altered the language to minimize attacks and Boko Haram’s responsibility.
It remains unclear why the reporting language was changed or who did it. The State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism—the office that oversees FTO designations—issues the reports, but the reports must first go through the appropriate regional bureaus for approval.
Although the State Department’s Africa bureau was known as a primary source of opposition to the FTO designation, former Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Clinton, told me last month he didn’t know anything about the altering of reports on Boko Haram.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Carson, who suggested changes likely originated within the Bureau of Counterterrorism. “We didn’t alter any reports.”
In a 2014 response letter to Vitter—obtained by WORLD—the State Department cited its 2013 FTO designation and listed efforts to combat Boko Haram, but it did not address his specific questions about the delay under Clinton’s watch. Since then, Vitter has continued, unsuccessfully, to find out from the State Department an explanation for the report’s discrepancies.
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