(CNN) – At least 20 students were killed in northern Nigeria last week when Islamic militants razed their boarding school, prompting British authorities to label the group thought to be responsible, Boko Haram, a terrorist organization.
But the Obama administration has not done the same.
When asked about the attack, a senior Obama administration official said that the United States is “deeply concerned” about extremism in Nigeria, and pointed to the history of cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria on security issues.
“We are working closely with the Nigerian government to address the growing threat of violent extremism throughout Nigeria,” the senior official said, adding that the U.S. also supports vocational training programs to help discourage radicalization and recruitment throughout Nigeria.
Boko Haram–which translates to “Western education is sinful” in the Hausa language–has carried out attacks in Nigeria’s north for roughly a decade, seeking to enforce Sharia law across Nigeria. The group has bombed churches in the past, but the group has also targeted Muslims, and is considered to be primarily opposed to the government and Western influence. More than 2,000 people have died in Boko Harram attacks since 2009, according to the BBC.
While the State Department has labeled several individual Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, it is not clear why the Obama administration has not taken the extra step to label the entire organization a terrorist organization.
The Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation would freeze any U.S. assets, impose a travel ban on known members and affiliates, and prohibit Americans from offering the group material support, according to the State Department’s website.
“Boko Haram is clearly a foreign organization engaged in terrorist activity that threatens U.S. national security, thus meeting the threshold for designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It’s time for the State Department to step up and designate them as such,” said Senator James Risch, R-Idaho, in a statement.
Risch introduced the Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act of 2013, which was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January.
Pressure to label the Nigerian group has also come from within the administration. In January of 2012, Lisa Monaco, then the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, wrote to the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism requesting the department name Boko Haram as a FTO.
Monaco currently serves as the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism for the Obama administration.
Possible explanations for reluctance to label the group can be found in a 2012 letter to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Nigeria experts, including John Campbell, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria under President George Bush.
The letter claims that the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation would limit the State Department’s ability to shape “long-term” strategy and encourage the Nigerian government to use military action rather than diplomacy.
“We believe that an FTO designation for Boko Haram would limit American policy options to those least likely to work, and would undermine the domestic political conditions necessary in Nigeria for an enduring solution,” said the group in the letter.
Boko Haram agreed to a ceasefire on July 8, two days after the boarding school attack, but it is not clear if the arrangement has been successful. Ceasefires between the group and government have not held in the past, according to Bloomberg News.
In a recent interview with NPR, Campbell, the former ambassador, described Boko Haram as not an organization but a collection of loosely affiliated cells–which could make the enforcement of any lasting ceasefire difficult.
Three northern states in the oil-rich African country have been under a state of emergency since May, following increasing reports of violence.