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Opinion

State Department compared Nigeria's Boko Haram crisis to religious minorities in United States

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Joel Gehrke,Terrorism,State Department,Religion,Boko Haram

When congressional leaders asked the State Department to tailor American assistance to Nigeria in a way that would protect Christians from religious persecution at the hands of Boko Haram, an extremist group that kidnapped hundreds of Christian girls last month, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team dismissed the idea on the theory that the organization was not motivated by religion.

"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. "Similar to the United States, Nigeria's religious diversity is a source of strength, with communities working across religious lines to protect one another."

Caitlin Poling, a former aide to Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said she couldn't believe the State Department's implication that Boko Haram was analogous to a religious minority in the United States.

"We don't have daily assaults by extremist Muslims on churches in the U.S.," Poling, who is now the director of government relations at the Foreign Policy Initiative, told the Washington Examiner. "Could you imagine if a group like Boko Haram was perpetrating such attacks in the United States? I don't think it would be that same type of line from anyone in the administration."

Poling explained that Boko Haram carried out attacks against Christians in order to provoke Christian counterattacks, which Boko Haram then used as a means of radicalizing moderate Muslims.

Congressional leaders such as Pompeo and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., wanted State to help secure religious communities against such attacks.

"The State Department should acknowledge the religiously-motivated nature of this violence and conduct an assessment of Boko Haram in that context," a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Clinton in July 2012, only to receive Adams' contrary response. "It will then be possible to appropriately tailor State Department and USAID initiatives in Nigeria to include a strong emphasis on ensuring the security of Christians and moderate Muslims."

Instead, Adams said that the State Department was already addressing "the driving forces of violence including poverty, disenfranchisement, and lack of quality government services in health, education, and sanitation."

("It's unbelievable that State thought that quality government services like sanitation would curb Boko Haram," a Franks staffer scoffed.)

"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," Adams wrote in that Oct. 4 letter.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in response to questions prompted by Josh Rogin's report that Clinton's team had refused to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization, emphasized that the State Department favored "a holistic approach to countering terrorism."

"That's what we're pursuing, what we've been pursuing with the Nigerians and international partners," Psaki told reporters Friday. "We've been working to counter Boko Haram for many, many years."

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