Enemy of the State: Terrorist Group Designation Surprisingly Supple

BY NICHOLAS ESSER – The United States government has declared yet another Islamic terrorist group.[1] The African based Boko Haram is responsible for a surge in violence in Nigeria, including the 2011 suicide bombing at the United Nations building in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.[2] So Boko Haram is now a terrorist group, but how does a group receive such a designation?

The law that governs a terrorist designation is the Immigration and Nationality Section of the United States Code Title 8 – Aliens and Nationality; specifically under subchapter II Immigration in part II. 8 U.S.C. §1189(a)(1)(A)-(C) lists the qualifications.[3] This has been altered by the US PATRIOT ACT.

The Secretary is authorized to designate an organization as a foreign terrorist organization in accordance with this subsection if the Secretary finds that: (A) the organization is a foreign organization; (B) the organization engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 1182 (a)(3)(B) of this title or terrorism (as defined in section 2656f (d)(2) of title 22), or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism); and (C) the terrorist activity or terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.[4]

8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(3)(B) is not very helpful in describing terrorism. It uses rather circular terms such as “any alien who has engaged in terrorism activities”[5] or “has…incited terrorist activities”[6]. So in order to find a clearer definition of terrorism it is best to turn to other government agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigations defines terrorism as involving violent acts that are a violation of criminal laws, if committed in the United States.[7] Specifically the acts should be pointed to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or affect the conduct of government.[8]

Applying this standard to Boco Haram, it is clear that their actions—suicide bombing of the United Nations building[9], kidnapping young Christian girls to convert to Islam and marry their fighters[10], and kidnapping French missionaries[11]—qualify as terrorist activities. Boco Haram is also infamous for bombing Christian churches in Africa.[12] Boco Haram also meets the criteria of a foreign organization, due to their ties with Al Qaeda.[13] The third criteria is met with the United State’s interest in the African State of Nigeria, whose government is battling Boco Haram. This affirms the legality of the declaration, but what happens now?

According to the rest of 8 U.S.C. §1189, Boco Haram is subject to legal ramifications such as having their assets frozen under 8 U.S.C. §1189(a)(2)(C).[14] However, they are also afforded legal protections? Review of the designation upon petition is guaranteed under 8 U.S.C. § 1189(a)(4)(B) and a five year review is promised under 8 U.S.C. § 1189(a)(4)(C).[15] The designation can also be revoked by Congress, by general change in circumstances, or via judicial review.[16] As it would seem, the United State’s designation of terrorist organization leaves much wiggle room. There is no doubt that receiving such a designation brings to bear the terrible foe of the United States armed services and United States intelligence services, but surprisingly neither is such designation set in stone.

[1] Daniel Magnowski, Terry Atlas, U.S. Names Boko Haram “Terrorist” Group, Bloomberg, (Nov. 14, 2013), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-13/u-s-names-nigeria-s-boko-haram-terrorist-group.html.

[2] Id.

[3] 8 U.S.C. §1189; available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/8/1189.

[4] Id.

[5] 8 U.S.C. §1182; available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/8/1182.

[6] Id.

[7] FBI, Terrorism In The United States 1999; available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror_99.pdf.

[8] Id.

[9] Supra.

[10] Joe Brock, Insight: Boko Haram, taking to hills, seize slave ‘brides’, (Nov. 17, 2013), Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/17/us-nigeria-security-islamists-insight-idUSBRE9AG04120131117.

[11] Emmanuel Tumanjong, Drew Hinshaw, Inti Landauro, Boko Haram Expands Reach With Kidnapping of French Priest Islamic: Insurgency is Moving Beyond Nigeria, (Nov. 15, 2013), Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304243904579199573036485730.

[12] Katherine Burgess, State Department Names Boko Haram A Terrorist Organization, (Nov. 14, 2013), Washington Post,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/state-department-names-boko-haram-a-terrorist-organization/2013/11/14/70f86612-4d78-11e3-bf60-c1ca136ae14a_story.html.

[13] Moses Rono, Boko Haram: Is terror designation a badge of honour?, (Nov. 15, 2013), BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-24959207.

[14] 8 U.S.C. §1189; available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/8/1189.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

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