Sheryl Saperia Headshot
Danny Eisen  Headshot

Canada, Ban This Organization That Burns Christians and Bombs Churches Now

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After years of vacillating, the United States has finally designated Boko Haram and its splinter faction Ansaru as foreign terrorist organizations. It took 4000 murders of nationals from 15 countries for the Obama administration to sanction this radical Sunni sect, which seeks to overthrow the Nigerian government and implement its interpretation of Islamic law throughout the country. Regrettably, Canada is one of many countries that have yet to follow suit.

Known officially as the "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad," Nigerian locals nicknamed the group Boko Haram. Commonly translated as "Western education is forbidden," the name refers to one of the group's core beliefs that Western culture, education and science are forbidden and corrupting influences.

Boko Haram's commitment to exorcising those "influences" has resulted in widespread carnage and a body count in 2012 surpassing that of all other terrorist entities but the Taliban. Renowned for its cruelty, Boko Haram has made international headlines with a signature tactic very much in keeping with its name: the targeting of schools. Pupils in institutions considered Western or insufficiently Islamic have been murdered with handsaws while they slept, shot while writing exams, or incinerated in schools that were burned to the ground. When Boko Haram has not been killing students in their beds, they have been burning Christians in their pews -- with Sundays, Christmas and Easter as the days of choice for committing such atrocities.

Although Boko Haram has publicly stated its intent to "end the Christian presence" in parts of Nigeria, Muslim clerics, leaders and citizens have not been spared. Many Muslims deemed infidels for voicing opposition to Boko Haram, as well as for other perceived offences or affiliations, have been subject to ritualistic forms of slaughter and beheading, often in the presence of their loved ones.

Despite Boko Haram's clear qualifications as a terrorist entity, Canada and many other Western countries have refrained from banning the group even while describing its exploits as "terrorism" in public statements of condemnation. Perhaps they concur with those who lobbied against the U.S. designation on the grounds that a terror listing might further radicalize Boko Haram and push it into the arms of global jihadists like al-Qaeda.

But these arguments are specious. Files taken from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad residence revealed that Boko Haram's ties with al-Qaeda have existed for years. Bin Laden himself had maintained contact with Boko Haram, and many of the group's leaders and followers remain his unabashed devotees. Additionally, Boko Haram has publicly acknowledged its operational collaboration with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As early as 2010, AQIM announced it would assist Boko Haram with training, personnel and equipment. Since making those commitments, Boko Haram has successfully employed technologies and methods that are al-Qaeda hallmarks. It has adopted the use of kidnapping and vehicle-borne IEDs. It has utilized suicide bombings, which had been unheard of in Africa until they became part of the modus operandi of AQIM and the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab. And it established its credentials as a terrorist group with global interests after launching a suicide attack against the UN facility in the Nigerian capital in 2011, which killed 23 people and injured more than 80 others. All of this took place before any terrorist designation "pushed" them into it.

A recent U.S. congressional report investigating the ongoing and expanding collaboration between Boko Haram and AQIM has indeed concluded that the relationship is now "well established" and "mature". The governments of France and Algeria have made similar determinations. This metamorphosis of Boko Haram should not come as a surprise. Its trajectory has been similar to that of other Islamist terror organizations, which begin as local phenomena and eventually intersect with and become part of other regional and global groups.

Even if Canada and other states choose to be somewhat circumspect about banning Boko Haram on the basis of its association with terrorist groups like AQIM and al-Shabaab, they are still remiss in failing to sanction an organization whose stated goal is the use of wide-scale slaughter to render Nigeria "ungovernable." And even if they see no national interest in protecting Africa from the group's regional expansion and recruitment operations, how can they dismiss the sound domestic reasons for designating Boko Haram as a terrorist entity? To be sure, the failure to add this egregious terrorist entity to the list of banned organizations represents a breach in the legislative firewall that Canada and other states have erected to keep groups just like Boko Haram from seeking funds and recruits on their soil.

Canada in particular should be wary. Its experience with foreign terrorist organizations seeking out co-religionists and expatriates within the country has had bitter consequences. Groups like the Tamil Tigers intimidated, assaulted and extorted Tamil-Canadians to provide financial support to the Tigers. Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh separatist group, also continued recruiting and fundraising within the Indo-Canadian community despite its sponsorship of the 1985 Air India bombings that killed 331 people. In both cases, delays in banning these organizations afforded them years of legal and moral standing to raise money, pursue their agendas and solicit political and grassroots support for their causes.

The domestic significance of terrorist designations, though, goes beyond proscribing material support for listed groups. By categorizing terrorism as a unique threat, these designations act as a line of defence against the apologetics and special interests that have often impeded our ability to look terrorism in the eye -- even when terrorists were peering back at us through the scope of a gun. They act as a safeguard against the same "failure of imagination" which brought down the World Trade Center in Manhattan and Air India Flight 182 over the Atlantic.

So if the burning churches, shattered mosques and charred schools are insufficient to trigger a Canadian listing for Boko Haram and its offshoots, perhaps legislators will be persuaded by the domestic implications of failing to list a terrorist organization that is metastasizing into a threat that's sights are clearly set beyond its own borders.

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