UPDATE (7:15 p.m. EDT): Wednesday afternoon, the White House announced that 80 U.S. troops have been deployed to neighboring Chad to aid in surveillance efforts related to rescuing the missing Nigerian girls.
“These troops will be vital in generating actionable intelligence for the search,” said Congressman Ed Royce, R-Calif. “But we can do more.”
Our earlier report (4:35 p.m. EDT): WASHINGTON—Six months ago a congressional hearing on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram drew scant media attention and only a handful of Congress members. On Wednesday, members of the public were turned away for lack of space and more than two dozen lawmakers attended a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to consider the U.S. response to Boko Haram’s recent attacks.
In between the two hearings, Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 Nigerian school girls—most of them Christians—raising the group to international prominence in April. Militants have reportedly forced the girls to convert to Islam or be sold as sex slaves.
“They don’t belong on this earth,” a visibly angry Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said of the terrorists.
State Department and Department of Defense representatives appeared before the committee and mostly defended the way the administration has handled Boko Haram. But members of both parties, the Justice Department, and the FBI advocated for the administration to designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization long before it happened in November.
“It should have happened in 2011,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told me after the hearing. “The administration’s reluctance and tardiness in declaring Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization unwittingly enabled them.”
The administration maintains the designation would have helped the group’s recruitment and fundraising efforts, but advocates say it would have, among other things, allowed the United States to track and disrupt the flow of weapons to Boko Haram. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., asked Sarah Sewall, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, how much progress the administration has made in the six months since the designation. She said she didn’t know.
Sewall, who came across as curt and exasperated for most of the hearing, resisted Republican attempts to characterize Boko Haram as a specifically Islamic group bent on destroying Christians. “This is a war against Christianity,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., reading a list of militant Islamic quotes from the organization’s leadership.
When asked why the State Department believes a lack of economic opportunity is fueling the attacks, Sewall said it is a connection the administration has seen in other countries. She said well-governed, prosperous countries don’t have as many problems with terrorist activity.
Smith said that thinking is an insult to poor people. “It’s a fundamental flaw, I believe, in the administration's policy,” he said. “These are radical Islamists.”
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., said there are many examples of third-world countries that do not have rampant terrorism problems. “It seems to me in some ways the State Department is living in an altered state of reality,” said Perry, a colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. “If you can’t acknowledge your enemy for who they are, you have no way of combating them.”
Sewall told lawmakers that more Muslims than Christians have been killed, but Smith read the numbers to her: In 2012, 47 churches were attacked compared to two mosques. In 2013, 53 churches were attacked compared to two mosques. Smith said the militants only attack Muslims who get in their way.
Sewall repeatedly said Boko Haram’s terror spree is a Nigerian problem and should be handled by the Nigerian government. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed back against her assertion, saying the United States should be doing more about a terror threat that is clearly spreading. “It is an international issue, and it is an issue that will affect the United States at some point,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who isn’t on the committee but attended the entire hearing.
Although the United States is involved in the search for the missing girls, lawmakers decried the lack of direct support and training for the Nigerian military. They cited the Leahy amendment—a policy stating the United States will not support any military that isn’t fully vetted—as a deterrent and said the State Department should seek a waiver to provide immediate assistance to Nigeria. Sewall said 50 percent of the Nigerian military is already vetted, but it wasn’t clear why the United States has not worked more closely to provide military training.
“There are parts of the Nigerian military that we want nothing to do with—they’ve committed atrocities themselves,” said Smith, who traveled to Nigeria last year. “With that said, there are very fine people within the Nigerian military.” He said the United States should work with the military and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to create an elite military force in the country.
Before Wednesday’s hearing, Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., met with Deborah Peter, a Nigerian teen who survived a Boko Haram attack in 2011. The terrorists killed her father, a pastor, and her brother in front of her. Until now, WORLD had been the only publication to tell her story, but she decided to speak out further after the abductions last month, which occurred in her home town of Chibok.
Peter, 15, told me she is concerned for her mother, who attended the school where the girls were abducted and remains in Nigeria. She said she is happy about all the media coverage now exposing Boko Haram: “I think it’s good because they’re trying to help my people.”
Royce and Engel will host a briefing on Boko Haram for all members of Congress on Thursday. Royce urged action, citing attacks that killed 118 on Tuesday and at least 48 more on Wednesday.
“As we talk about it, additional attacks have occurred,” Royce said. “Boko Haram is in the process of expanding its reach.”