How do you disrupt the finances of an Islamist group whose name means “Western education is sinful?”

Two men walk in the rubble after Boko Haram militants raided the town of Benisheik.
Two men walk in the rubble after Boko Haram militants raided the town of Benisheik.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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The US government is set today to officially label Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group, a ”foreign terrorist organization.” That means authorities would have the power to block financial transactions by people associated with the militants, who have committed several atrocities in attacks on the UN and an agricultural college. U.S. financial institutions would also be required to seize any funds controlled by Boko Haram—but the group doesn’t really sound like the type to open up a checking account.

Though translations vary, Boko Haram’s name loosely means “Western education is sinful.” And as the moniker suggests, the group abhors any Western influence in the country’s largely Muslim northeast—especially education, which its late founder Mohammed Yousef told the BBC “spoils the belief in one God.” (He also disputed Darwinism and the roundness of the Earth; he was killed by police in 2009.)

There have been allegations that Boko Haram is receiving support from foreign groups like North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—exactly the kind of support that might benefit from international banking services that fall under the US ban—but much of the group’s revenue seems to come from domestic sources. According to a Nigerian government report, the group engages in kidnapping and received a $3 million ransom for the release of a French family that was seized in neighboring Cameroon. Boko Haram members are also suspected of robbing a bank in the northeast of 9 million naira ($56,500) along with several dozen other heists. And experts say Boko Haram is even generating revenue from old-fashioned taxes via local governments that it controls in the northeast.

More than anything, the US government’s designation is mostly symbolic. The State Department says the label increases public awareness of terrorist groups, amd “stigmatizes and isolates” such groups. The problem is that a group that decries the slightest hint of Western influences is likely to be nonplussed by the disapproval of the United States.