A State Department official struggled to discuss the religious import of Boko Haram's ideology, despite the group's repeated attacks on Christians, a rhetorical hesitancy that created tension during a rather bipartisan House hearing on the threat from the terrorist group.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., asked whether Boko Haram specifically targets Christians.
"I wish there was such discrimination in Boko Haram attacks," State Department undersecretary Sarah Sewall replied during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. "Boko Haram attacks everyone who is Nigerian. Boko Haram is an equal-opportunity threat for all Nigerian citizens."
That answer irritated Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the subcommittee panel on global human rights. "You said you wish they would differentiate or discriminate — they were so discriminating. Yes, they'll hit other Nigerians, they'll hit other westerners, but Christians are their main target," he countered.
Smith pointed out that in 2012 and 2013, Boko Haram attacked 100 Christian churches, compared to just four mosques over the same time period, before citing the experience of Habila Adamu, a Nigerian man who survived being shot by Boko Haram because he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs.
"He said 'no, I am ready to see my Lord, I am a Christian,' and they blew his face away," Smith recalled. "That is the underlying, fundamental, raison d'être of Boko Haram." (The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway wrote about Adamu's experience at length when he visited Washington in November).
"The question that I was asked was whether there was an official State Department position on the motivations of Boko Haram, which I simply don't have with me," Sewall replied. "If the question is, 'Does the leadership of Boko Haram and do the actions of Boko Haram target Christianity?' [the answer is] absolutely, unequivocally. More fundamentally, they target other things too and they are a threat to the government and the region. And so I loved the very clear-eyed characterization that was just offered [by Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas], which is that Boko Haram is motivated by hatred. I don't think anybody would disagree with that."
The State Department told Congress in 2012 that religion was not the primary cause of violence in Nigeria in a letter about Boko Haram.
"This religious tension, while real, should not be mistaken as the primary source of violence in Nigeria," David Adams, assistant secretary of legislative affairs, wrote to Congress in an Oct. 4, 2012, letter. "Attacks in the north, however, are likely to continue until the Nigerian government counters Boko Haram through a comprehensive, whole of government strategy, which takes into account the legitimate social, political, judicial, and economic grievances of northern populations and addresses retaliatory security force abuses."
The Washington Examiner's Charles Hoskinson observed that in a recent video released by Boko Haram, the group's leader speaks in Arabic — which is not a language commonly used in Nigeria, but is the language of the Islamic Quran. In the video, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is identified as an imam, or Muslim prayer leader.
"Most news outlets have interpreted the video as a message to the Nigerian government and the West stating the group's demands in exchange for the girls' release," Hoskinson wrote. "But it may be more than that as well: Boko Haram, which has gained a reputation for brutality against both Christians and more moderate Muslims and is loosely aligned with al Qaeda, can ill afford to lose the support of those whose interests it professes to defend."