As the U.S. considers how to help Nigeria rescue some 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram a month ago, domestic political attention is turning to the question of what the U.S. could have done ahead of time. In particular, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come under fire for declining to add Boko Haram to the State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, or FTO list. The implication is that the U.S. had an opportunity to prevent the kidnapping, and that the FTO list would have helped.
Secretary of State John Kerry did eventually add Boko Haram to the list last November, after what the New York Times called at the time “a spirited debate inside and outside the government” and “increasing pressure from Congress, particularly Republicans, to list the group.”
The FTO list has three basic membership requirements. To qualify, an organization must be foreign, must “engage in terrorist activity” and through such activity must threaten the United States. During the “spirited debate” about listing Boko Haram taking place in 2012, the group was certainly both foreign and terrorist, but it’s not clear it represented a threat to the United States.