Two militant groups believed to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in northeastern and central Nigeria have been designated foreign terrorist organizations, the State Department said Wednesday.
Boko Haram — which has links to Al-Qaeda — and Ansaru have been waging a brutal campaign against military, government and civilian targets in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and a top oil exporter.
The organizations are also labeled as specially designated global terrorist groups under federal law to help U.S. and other law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute suspects associated with the extremist networks. The two designations mean that business and financial transactions with the groups are blocked.
“By cutting these terrorist organizations off from U.S. financial institutions and enabling banks to freeze assets held in the United States, these designations demonstrate our strong support for Nigeria's fight against terrorism and its efforts to address security challenges in the north," said Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, in a statement.
Boko Haram, which translates as "Western education is sinful,” stepped up its attacks against civilians and government installations this year, prompting the Nigerian government to declare a state of emergency in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in May.
Since 2009, the group has been fighting to create an Islamic state in the country's mainly Muslim north.
The State Department urged Nigeria to continue protecting civilians and to ensure that human rights are respected, an apparent reference to accusations by rights groups that government efforts to rein in Boko Haram have led to violations of human rights.
Boko Haram carried out indiscriminate attacks in the town of Benisheik in September, killing more than 160 civilians, including women and children, the State Department said.
The group has also conducted attacks against international targets, the department said, including a suicide bombing that killed 21 people at the United Nations building in the capital, Abuja, on Aug. 26, 2011. Many of those who died were aid workers supporting development projects across Nigeria, the statement added.
It said Ansaru's attacks had focused on Nigerian military and Western targets, citing the November 2012 raid on a police station in Abuja that killed Nigerian police officers and freed detained "terrorists" from prison.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which a source said has been notified of the decision, held a hearing Wednesday on Boko Haram.
"The likelihood of more hearings on this issue may have been a final straw in encouraging the State Department to acknowledge something which has been apparent for some time — the growing relationship between Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who convened his own hearing on the issue.