When State Department officials designated a Nigerian Islamist militant group as a foreign terrorist organization, they did so without mentioning that the people being terrorized are Christians targeted for their beliefs. In fact, they acted as if the group has other motivations.
"These designations are an important and appropriate step, but only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government to counter these groups through a combination of law enforcement, political, and development efforts, as well as military engagement, to help root out violent extremism while also addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria," the State Department said in the press release last week. "All of our assistance to Nigeria stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are respected. That assistance and these designations demonstrate U.S. support for the Nigerian people's fight against Boko Haram and Ansaru."
"While also addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria" — such language suggests that the terrorism is an operation of Nigerian unrest about the economy or other social concerns. As it happens, Boko Haram's motivations are completely different.
The group, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the native Hausa language, is formally known as the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad and has become known for demanding Christians convert to Islam or die.
The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway heard a survivor of a Boko Haram attack speak Wednesday in Washington. The terrorists asked Habila Adamu if he was a Christian. He said he was.
"The gunmen wanted to know why he was not Muslim and told him they'd spare his life if he renounced his faith," Hemingway wrote. "His wife begged him to do what he needed to do to live. But he told them he was ready to die as a Christian. Before he could even get the statement out a second time, they shot him in the face."
Adamu survived, but thousands of others have not. Some women survive — but only to be used as "wives" by their kidnappers.
The Obama administration has consistently refused to acknowledge a religious motivation for Islamist extremist terrorism. In a 2010 speech, President Obama's then-counterterrorism adviser (and current CIA director) John Brennan said the administration does not "describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself of one's community."
There's perhaps a case to be made for U.S. foreign policy officials, if not downplaying, at least not hyping the religious dynamic involved in terrorism: It'd be bad to say anything that terrorist propagandists could use to convince Muslims that the United States is at war with Islam. But there's danger in falling off the horse on the other side as well.
The State Department should take care not to deliver a messaging victory to American enemies by refusing to acknowledge the religious components of such attacks when appropriate.