The United States designated three leaders of the Boko Haram Islamic militants as global terrorists Thursday in a bid to stem the violence in Nigeria, warning it may still blacklist the whole group.
The three named by the State Department were Abubakar Shekau, widely believed to lead Boko Haram’s main Islamist cell, and Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi, both said to have close ties to a regional Al-Qaeda group.
“We took this measure to designate these three because they are clearly kingpins of Boko Haram and clearly all of them have advocated terrorism as a weapon in their campaign,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Boko Haram is blamed for about 1,000 deaths since it launched an uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009 seeking to implement Sharia law in northern Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
But the United States has not yet met calls to dub the whole group a foreign terrorist organization.
“We’re continuing to look at the question of a broader designation,” Nuland said. “But as you know, Boko Haram is at the moment a loosely constructed group attached to, trying to address grievances in the north.”
Shekau was the most visible of the group’s leaders, the State Department said in a statement, and under his leadership “Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in northern Nigeria.”
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing of UN headquarters in Abuja in August, which killed at least 25 people.
Its deadliest attack yet occurred in January in the northern city of Kano, when coordinated bombings and shootings left at least 185 people dead.
But its attacks have grown increasingly sophisticated and have affected a wider geographical area, spreading from its base in the extreme northeast across the wider north and down to the capital Abuja.
The US designation blocks the men’s “property interests subject to US jurisdiction and prohibits US persons from engaging in transactions with or for the benefit of these individuals,” the statement added.
Nuland said the designation meant that none of the three men could try to raise any funds in the United States for instance.
Beyond that it also “sends a shot across the bow to those who are considering taking up extreme violence to address grievances in the north,” she added.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin” in the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria, is believed to include a number of factions with differing aims, some with political links and a hardcore Islamist cell.
Initially, the group said it was fighting to set up an Islamic state in the north of Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer. But they have issued a range of demands including the release of its members from prison.
After the 2009 uprising that led to nearly a week of fighting that ended with a military assault that left some 800 people dead, the group went dormant.
It re-emerged in 2010 with a series of assassinations. Bomb blasts, including suicide attacks, have since become frequent and increasingly deadly.
Nuland added that the US administration was also working with Abuja to encourage “a real dialogue about some of the roots of the dissatisfaction in the north” which are mostly economic.
“They’ve got to really engage the northern communities and thereby make them more resistant to some of these extremist style tactics that these three espouse,” she said.
Shekau was once thought to have been killed, but re-emerged in January to lead the group from the shadows.
Born in a farming village also called Shekau in northeastern Yobe state, Shekau studied theology under local clerics in the Mafoni area of Maiduguri and enrolled in a government-run school for Islamic studies.
He is often shown in photos wearing a keffiyeh Arab headdress and seated next to an AK-47 assault rifle, appearing tense.
According to a source close to Boko Haram, Barnawi is thought to have run a militant training camp in the Algerian desert and was involved in the kidnapping of foreigners in the nation of Niger and in Nigeria.
The third militant, Abubakar Adam Kambar, is believed to be in his mid-30s and thought to be from Borno state, where Maiduguri is located.