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Boko Haram in Nigeria

A massive Boko Haram attack in Lagos threatens the stability of Nigeria, a major oil producer and Africa’s most populous country.


Boko Haram, a radical Islamist movement, is waging an insurgency against the Nigerian government. Its campaign, estimated to have killed at least twenty thousand people in recent years, threatens the stability of Nigeria, a major oil producer and Africa’s most populous country. Following a massive Boko Haram attack in Lagos, Nigeria’s president has requested that the United States sell heavy military equipment to the country. The National Security Council needs to advise the president on whether to authorize the sale, which is currently prohibited under U.S. law because of the Nigerian military’s reported human rights abuses.


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Protesters holding signs reading "Not Without our Daughters"

The Situation

Radical Islamist movement Boko Haram is waging an insurgency in northeast Nigeria estimated to have killed at least twenty thousand people in recent years. The insurgency threatens the stability of Nigeria, a major oil producer and Africa’s most populous country. Nigerian security forces have made some progress against Boko Haram, but humanitarian and media organizations have reported extensive human rights abuses by these forces, including the killing of civilians. Following a massive Boko Haram attack in Lagos, Nigeria’s president has requested that the United States sell heavy military equipment to the country. However, a U.S. law, called the Leahy Amendment, prohibits military assistance to foreign militaries credibly accused of human rights abuses unless the foreign government takes action—something Nigeria’s government has yet to do. National Security Council (NSC) members need to advise the president on whether to authorize the sale despite legal and human rights concerns.





  • U.S.-Nigeria relations
  • Leahy Amendment
  • Nigerian political and religious dynamics  
  • Security sector reform
  • U.S. promotion of human rights, democratization, and the rule of law
  • Regional security in West Africa


Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such as NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades. 

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices. 

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Boko Haram Protest
Protesters holding signs reading "Not Without our Daughters"

“If the U.S. is discussing further financial or technical support for Nigeria’s security forces, it should insist on clear benchmarks on how they will ensure respect for human rights.”

— Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, July 20, 2015

2.1 The Issue

Since 2009, Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, has waged an insurgency against the secular government of Nigeria. In summer 2014, then President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan asked the United States to authorize his country’s purchase of U.S.-manufactured attack helicopters from Israel, as required by U.S. law. President Barack Obama declined to approve; U.S. law prohibited the transfer of heavy military equipment to Nigeria, in part because of the Nigerian government’s lack of response to human rights abuses by its security services.

The legislation in question, commonly called the Leahy Amendment, forbids U.S. military assistance to foreign militaries and security services credibly accused of human rights abuses unless or until the government of the accused party investigates the charges and takes appropriate action. International humanitarian organizations and the international press have reported extensive abuses by Nigerian forces, especially the military. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these abuses can drive public support for Boko Haram. Observers estimate that during some periods, the security services have killed as many civilians as Boko Haram has. Even so, successive Nigerian governments have largely dismissed the charges and conducted few credible investigations.

However, the current Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, has said that he is moving to restore discipline within the military and, in September 2015, promised to issue new rules of engagement designed to protect civilians. Thus far, those steps appear to have had little practical consequence. In December 2015, the army killed several hundred members of a Shiite sect known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), alleging that they had attacked the motorcade of the chief of army staff. The Kaduna State government responded by forming the Commission for Judicial Inquiry to investigate the massacre. The commission found the Nigerian army responsible for the killings and condemned the IMN for provoking the attack. The August 2016 report called for all involved parties to be prosecuted, but Nigeria’s justice system has taken no further legal action. Since then, additional bloody clashes have broken out between the security services and the IMN, most recently in July 2019. Government spokesmen continue to deny security service wrongdoing.

Since the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016, U.S. policy toward Africa has changed. Seeking to prioritize counterterrorism efforts on the continent, the Trump administration has shown more willingness to provide assistance, including the provision of light military equipment, to the Nigerian government despite humanitarian concerns. Most recently, the Trump administration approved the sale of twelve A-29 Super Tucano light aircraft; delivery is expected in 2024.

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Protesters holding signs reading "Not Without our Daughters"
Aerial view of a street in Lagos, Nigeria

“I have worked in many, many places—Central African Republic, Darfur, South Sudan—and the condition of people in very rural parts of Borno state is as bad as I have ever seen … It is an acute emergency.”

— Toby Lanzer, UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, July 11, 2016

2.2 Background

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, now 203 million and growing, especially in urban areas; one of every four or five sub-Saharan Africans is Nigerian. The country has more than 350 ethnic groups and languages, and a population evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. National identity and cohesion is weak. The civil war fought from 1967 to 1970 over the Biafra region’s attempt to secede and the following generation of military rule also left democratic institutions fragile. Though democratic, civilian government was restored in 1999, elite leaders have continued to rule Nigeria as they had under the military, organizing themselves into political parties based on personalities rather than issues. Wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a few, as 70 percent of the country’s revenue comes from oil sales, and most Nigerians are poor. As of 2019, Nigeria has the largest percentage of population living below the poverty line, placing it among the poorest, least developed, and most unequal countries in the world.

The Islamist group Boko Haram was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in the northern Borno State in 2002. Primarily nonviolent, Boko Haram rejected the secular state, Western education, and traditional Nigerian elites. (Boko, meaning book in Hausa—one of Nigeria’s major languages—refers to Western education and values; haram refers to practices and beliefs forbidden by Islam. The group’s leaders call it by other names, which vary and are rarely used.) Over time, Boko Haram has become large, influential, and violent.

In 2009, in the context of local political rivalries, Boko Haram launched a rebellion in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Nigerian security services responded brutally, killing at least eight hundred people, destroying mosques, and murdering Yusuf in cold blood, an episode that went viral on social media. Boko Haram then went underground but reemerged in 2011 with much more violent leadership that advocated practices and principles similar to those of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Boko Haram was especially violent against Muslims who accepted the secular Nigerian state, routinely using seventh-century beliefs to characterize them as “apostates” who had turned away from Islam, a charge that, according to these beliefs, justifies their execution.

In increasingly sophisticated operations, Boko Haram conducted widespread kidnappings of women and girls, including the Chibok schoolgirls, an incident that became well known internationally. It funded itself through ransoms and bank robberies. It armed itself by raiding government armories, some of which had likely been deliberately left unlocked. It staged devastating attacks on government jails and prisons to free captured fighters.

Today, Boko Haram operates primarily in northeastern Nigeria, though at times it has conducted operations in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and in Kano, the largest city in the north. According to credible estimates, since 2009 Boko Haram has killed at least thirty thousand people. While the scale of Boko Haram’s violence is indisputable, little consensus exists about the group’s structure. Its leadership is largely unknown. It appears to be highly diffuse and locally based with little central command and control.

Support for Boko Haram is also difficult to judge. Polling indicates that about 10 percent of Nigeria’s population views the group favorably. However, Boko Haram has yet to advance a political or economic program. Moreover, unlike other radical Islamist movements, Boko Haram shows little interest in the United States. It has attacked no Western facilities, of which, granted, not many exist in its area of operation. Nevertheless, observers are concerned that Boko Haram could provide other radical jiha Islamist movements opposed to Western interests access to sub-Saharan Africa.

In February and March 2015, then President Goodluck Jonathan launched an offensive against Boko Haram, using Chadian, Nigerian, and Nigerien troops supported by South African–led mercenaries. Boko Haram was dislodged from most of the territories it had occupied but was not destroyed. Nigerian authorities have yet to reestablish firm control of those areas, and Boko Haram appears to move about freely. As many as two million people are internally displaced in northeastern Nigeria, and Boko Haram’s violence continues.

In the March 2015 Nigerian presidential election, Muhammadu Buhari defeated Jonathan on an anticorruption platform and a promise to destroy Boko Haram. Since his inauguration, Buhari has approved corruption investigations of numerous high-level officials of the Jonathan administration as well as senior military officers. He has also pursued military effort against Boko Haram. Despite these investigations, Nigeria’s overall corruption status has remained unchanged since the election. He has also pursued military effort against Boko Haram but has not defeated it. In February 2019, Buhari was elected for a second term, promising to intensify security efforts, restructure the economy, and fight corruption.

Under Buhari, the Nigerian military has conducted a number of successful operations against the terrorist group, and the number of monthly deaths in Nigeria has indeed gone down. Moreover, in a shift away from the policy of the Barack Obama administration, President Donald J. Trump has increased counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria, approving the sale of twelve A-29 Super Tucano planes, a type of light attack aircraft, to the Nigerian military—a sale that the Obama administration had blocked over human rights concerns. In a meeting with Buhari in Washington, DC, in April 2018, Trump announced his intention to increase U.S. military and intelligence assistance in the fight against Boko Haram.

Despite this pronouncement, U.S. policies toward Nigeria and Africa more broadly have varied under the Trump administration. Following the October 2017 killing of four American soldiers, the United States decreased its direct military involvement in Africa. Further, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis signaled in January 2018 that the national defense strategy of the United States would shift to prioritizing great power competition with China and Russia rather than counterterrorism efforts. Trump himself has expressed varying views toward providing assistance to African nations, calling them and some Caribbean nations “shithole countries” during a cabinet meeting in January 2018, but condemning violence and calling for “peace for Africa” at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit six months later.

Attacks and suicide bombings continue in northeastern Nigeria. The 2015–2016 collapse of oil prices further impoverished the government and greatly reduced its options for responding to the security and humanitarian challenges of Boko Haram. Despite Buhari’s promises, allegations of corruption and human rights concerns also continue unabated. In May 2018, Amnesty International reported that Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram face abuse and starvation at the hands of the Nigerian security forces administering so-called satellite camps in northeastern Nigeria. Since 2015, thousands have starved in these camps, and many women have reported having been raped, sometimes in exchange for food. To date, at least thirty thousand people have been killed in the fight against Boko Haram.

Protesters holding signs reading "Not Without our Daughters"
President Obama standing with a naturalized Nigerian soldier

“[Buhari is] very concerned about the spread of Boko Haram and the violence that’s taken place there, and the atrocities that they’ve carried out, and has a very clear agenda in defeating Boko Haram and extremists of all sorts inside of his country.”

— Barack Obama, president of the United States, July 20, 2015

2.3 Role of the United States

Policymakers in Washington have usually seen Nigeria as the most important U.S. partner in Africa. Successive U.S. presidents have supported Nigeria’s evolution toward democracy not only because of the U.S. belief in democratic governance but also because of Nigeria’s size, diversity, and potential to be a model for other African states. Democratic failure in Nigeria would set a bad example for African states similarly divided by ethnicity and religion.

U.S. goals in Nigeria include continued evolution toward democratic governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Another U.S. priority is the acceleration of economic development, which would likely promote political stability. In addition, and within resource constraints, Washington seeks to curb the expansion of militant terrorist movements. The United States traditionally has had only limited leverage over the Nigerian government because of the country’s size and oil wealth. Now, however, the decline of Nigeria’s economy and the threat of Boko Haram provide Washington with potentially greater negotiating advantage.

The Leahy Amendment forbids the U.S. State and Defense Departments from providing military assistance to foreign militaries and security services if the U.S. secretary of state or defense has credible information that these parties have committed a gross violation of human rights. Accordingly, three options are possible in responding to Buhari’s request for U.S. authorization to acquire heavy weaponry:

NSC members could conclude that U.S. security interests mandate authorizing the sale or transfer of the weapons Buhari requests.

In this case, National Security Council (NSC) members need to advise the president on how to either meet or set aside the Leahy Amendment requirements. If the president agrees to Buhari’s request, Washington could press Abuja to set up a commission or tribunal to investigate credible accusations of abuses by its security forces and take appropriate judicial action. This option would meet the Leahy Amendment’s requirements, opening the door to a more extensive bilateral military relationship. Addressing human rights abuses by the security services could also diminish Boko Haram’s appeal. But if Abuja declines to take action, it would become more difficult for the United States to provide heavy weaponry or build a closer bilateral military relationship. A public U.S. commitment to provide the requested weaponry could also politically strengthen Buhari’s hand with his critics and boost the Nigerian military’s morale.

NSC members could conclude that it remains best for the United States to decline Buhari’s request and that the Leahy requirements cannot be met and should not be set aside.

This option would be the preferred approach if NSC members fear that Nigerian security forces’ using American equipment would lead to significant civilian casualties, as often shown by U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, only trained personnel can use such weapons; therefore, the provision of military equipment cannot be separated from a long-term training package. It would take a long time between the authorization of the transfer of the heavy weapons and their use on the battlefield. NSC members could conclude that the benefits of agreeing to Buhari’s request are outweighed by the risks of both giving the weapons to Nigeria and the possible delay in their actually being used.

NSC members could advise the president to refuse the helicopters and other requested equipment but offer assistance to the Nigerian security forces and legal system, including courts and prisons.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Nigerian military faces severe shortfalls in the low-tech military equipment necessary for fighting an asymmetric war, including ammunition, rifles, transport, tents, and medical equipment. The United States could provide these materiel without triggering the requirements of the Leahy Amendment. This option could include training and equipment as well as low-tech military equipment but would not include heavy materiel. This type of assistance is actually likely to be more successful than heavy weapons against Boko Haram, though it is unlikely to provide the immediate political boost Buhari seeks. However, if such assistance helps Nigeria make its military, police force, and courts more professional and efficient, it could conceivably reduce human rights abuses, thereby facilitating a more favorable U.S. consideration of future requests for heavy military equipment.

Case Notes Glossary


al-Qaeda:an international terrorist network established around 1988 by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda, which means “the Base,” was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks, among many others. In recent years, its core leadership has operated out of Pakistan, though it has affiliate terrorist groups in many countries. The network adheres to a fundamentalist Islamic ideology that aims to eliminate Western influence on Islamic countries and replace those countries’ governments with regimes based on Islamic law.
amnesty:a type of pardon offered by a government that forgives a person or group of people suspected or found guilty of a crime. The word “amnesty” shares a root with “amnesia,” suggesting that the person’s actions will be legally forgotten.
asymmetric warfare:violent conflict in which the military capabilities of opposing sides differ dramatically in size, power, and sophistication. Conflict between a state and a terrorist group or insurgency is often considered an example of asymmetric warfare.


Biafra:a section of southeastern Nigeria that declared itself an independent republic in 1967. A response to perceived oppression by Nigerian authorities and tension with other Nigerian groups, Biafra’s secession sparked the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War. Lasting from 1967 to 1970, the war resulted in the defeat of the Republic of Biafra and the reunification of Nigeria. Between one and three million people died. Recently, interest in and action around Biafran independence has been revived.
bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
Boko Haram:a radical Islamic extremist group based in northern Nigeria. Founded by Mohammad Yusuf on Salafist principles, Boko Haram conducts terrorist attacks, executions of people it deems apostates, and mass kidnappings in and near Nigeria. The name Boko Haram refers to its rejection of Western education and values. Estimated to have killed at least twenty thousand people, it pledged its allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2015.


caliphate:an Islamic state governed by a caliph, or successor to the prophet Mohammed, who maintains absolute political and religious power. Many Islamic extremist groups, including Boko Haram, aim to establish an Islamic caliphate and unify Muslims in an undivided religious and ideological empire.
coup d’état:a government takeover, often led by the military, that does not use the country’s codified mechanisms for changing power (such as elections).


extrajudicial:outside the bounds of customary legal proceedings and unauthorized by a court of law. Extrajudicial killings, for example, stand apart from death sentences pronounced by a court.


foreign terrorist organization (FTO):a group, based outside the United States, deemed by the U.S. government to be engaged in terrorism. This official designation facilitates U.S. action, such as asset freezes, aimed at weakening and stopping the group.


insurgency:a rebellion, the primary goal of which is to overthrow or delegitimize a government. Insurgents are irregular forces that have varying levels of organizational sophistication and use political violence and guerilla action to achieve their goals. An example of an insurgency is the ongoing Taliban campaign against the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan.
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:a terrorist organization that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and seeks to impose a caliphate, a form of Islamic government promoted by Islamist fundamentalist reformers. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the land under the group’s control in Iraq and Syria the Islamic State on June 29, 2014. The group has gained notoriety for barbaric decapitations, immolations, and draconian social laws. It has drawn recruits worldwide with jihadist propaganda disseminated through social media.


jihad:a concept from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, that refers in part to a war fought against enemies of that religion. Today it is commonly used to denote an Islamic holy war meant to expand the influence of extremist Muslim beliefs.


Leahy Amendment:a U.S. law prohibiting U.S. military assistance to foreign security forces credibly accused of gross human rights violations unless the foreign government investigates the charges and takes appropriate action in response. Since its passage in 1997, the law has prevented security forces in several countries, including Nigeria, from receiving military assistance. It is named after its sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy.


materiel:military equipment or technology.
Mohammed Yusuf:a Salafist Islamic cleric who founded Boko Haram with the goal of creating an Islamic state to replace the secular Nigerian government. Boko Haram, originally nonviolent, grew out of Yusuf’s religious school in northern Nigeria. In 2009, Yusuf died while in police custody, and his death, suspected to have been an extrajudicial killing, radicalized Boko Haram, which reemerged in 2011 as a violent extremist group.
mutiny:an uprising by individuals who disobey their leaders’ orders, often in an attempt to overthrow them. Mutinies are most closely associated with actions by military members subverting their chain of command.


secession:the act of breaking away from a territory or leaving an organization, usually for the purposes of establishing a new one. The secession of eleven southern, slaveholding states from the United States and their subsequent establishment of the Confederate States of America led to the American Civil War.
sharia:legal principles rooted in the Islamic faith and derived from the Quran and the life of the prophet Mohammed. Sharia also constitutes a comprehensive code of behavior for everyday life, regulating penal codes, politics, marriage, contracts, trade, personal hygiene, diet, and etiquette. Many majority-Muslim countries incorporate elements of sharia into their legal systems to some extent. Boko Haram has declared sharia in the territories it occupies and has vowed to continue its terrorist campaign until sharia applies throughout Nigeria.
Shia Islam:one of the major sects of Islam. Though they make up less than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide, Shiite Muslims account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population. Other countries with Shiite majorities include Iran and Iraq.
Sunni Islam:one of the major sects of Islam, comprising more than 80 percent of all Muslims. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni, even though Sunnis are a minority within the country. Countries with Sunni majorities include Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.


terrorist:a word used to describe an individual, organization, or act that employs violence to incite fear and achieve an objective, usually a political one.


United Nations:an international organization composed of 193 independent member states that aims to promote international peace and stability, human rights, and economic development. The United Nations was established in 1945 and remains the only organization with practically universal membership among the world’s countries. It includes the Security Council, General Assembly, and a range of other bodies; a secretary-general, currently Ban Ki-moon, serves as its leader. The United Nations also has an array of affiliated programs and agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.  
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

Farouk Chothia, “Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?” BBC Africa, November 24, 2016 , http://bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501.

“Nigeria,” in Amnesty International Report 2017/2018: The State of the World’s Human Rights, pp. 274–278, http://amnesty.org/en/countries/africa/nigeria/report-nigeria.

U.S. Department of State, “Leahy Fact Sheet,” last modified July 18, 2017, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/fs/2017/272663.htm.   


2.2 Background

Zack Beauchamp, “The Crisis in Nigeria, in 11 Maps and Charts,” Vox, May 13, 2014, https://www.vox.com/2014/5/13/5710484/boko-haram-maps-charts-nigeria.

Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Events of 2017,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/nigeria.  

Dionne Searcey, “Nigeria Finds a National Crisis in Every Direction It Turns,” New York Times, July 17, 2016 http://nytimes.com/2016/07/18/world/africa/nigeria-niger-delta-buhari-oil-militants.html.


2.3 Role of the United States

John Campbell, U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2014, http://cfr.org/nigeria/us-policy-counter-nigerias-boko-haram/p33806.

“Trump Administration ‘to Sell Nigeria Planes’ for Boko Haram Fight,” BBC, April 11, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39564855.

U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Relations with Nigeria,” last modified February 21, 2017, http://state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2836.htm.


Further Reading

Abimbola Adesoji, “The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria,” Africa Spectrum 45, no 2 (2010): 95–108, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25798918.pdf.

Amnesty International, “Nigeria: Killing of Unarmed Pro-Biafra Supporters by Military Must Be Urgently Investigated,” news release, June 9, 2016, http://amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/nigeria-killing-of-unarmed-pro-biafra-supporters-by-military-must-be-urgently-investigated.

Michael W. Baca, “Could Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis Hold Key to Countering Radicalization?” Global Observatory, December 7, 2015, http://theglobalobservatory.org/2015/12/izala-boko-haram-salafism-nigeria-extremism.

John Campbell, “Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Election: Contingency Planning Memorandum Update,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2015, http://cfr.org/nigeria/nigerias-2015-presidential-election/p36087.

John Campbell, “Nigeria’s Buhari Administration, the Chibok Girls, and the ICRC,” CFR.org, October 20, 2016, https://www.cfr.org/blog/nigerias-buhari-administration-chibok-girls-and-icrc

John Campbell, “Nigeria Faces a Crippling Population Boom,” CFR.org, April 20, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/nigeria-faces-crippling-population-boom.

Jamie Crawford, “U.S. Deploys Troops to Africa,” CNN Politics, last modified October 14, 2015, http://cnn.com/2015/10/14/politics/united-states-troops-cameroon-africa/index.html.

Helene Cooper and Dionne Searcey, “U.S. Plans Sale of Warplanes to Nigeria for Fighting Boko Haram,” New York Times, April 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/world/africa/us-warplanes-nigeria-bo….

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “People’s Democratic Party (PDP),” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, last modified May 6, 2016, http://britannica.com/topic/Peoples-Democratic-Party-political-party-Nigeria.

Celeste Hicks and Laura Seay, “Governance, gender and no guarantees in Africa’s oil-rich states,” Washington Post, June 19, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/06/19/governance-gender-and-no-guarantees-in-africas-oil-rich-states/?utm_term=.eb4716e5fb11.

Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Northeast Children Robbed of Education; Boko Haram’s Devastating Toll on Students, Teachers, Schools,” April 11, 2016, http://hrw.org/news/2016/04/11/nigeria-northeast-children-robbed-education.   

Brian Michael Jenkins, “Nigeria’s Inescapable Burden,” Rand Blog, May 19, 2014, http://rand.org/blog/2014/05/nigerias-inescapable-burden.html.

Adrienne Lebas, “What Is to Be Done in Nigeria?” Duck of Minerva, May 22, 2014, http://duckofminerva.dreamhosters.com/2014/05/what-is-to-be-done-in-nigeria.html.

Roman Loimeier, “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria,” Africa Spectrum 47, no. 2/3 (2012): 137–155, http://jstor.org/stable/pdf/23350455.pdf.

Hilary Matfess, “African Union Forces May Exacerbate Boko Haram Threat,” Al Jazeera America, February 7, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/2/african-union-forces-may-exacerbate-boko-haram-threat.html.

Samer Muscati and Tirana Hassan, “Anatomy of a Boko Haram Massacre,” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/10/anatomy-of-a-boko-haram-massacre.

Lai Mohammed, “Nigeria’s Difficult Path to Lasting Peace with Boko Haram,” Al Jazeera, May 10, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/nigeria-difficult-path-long-lasting-peace-boko-haram-180510122233687.html.

Hilary Matfess, “Boko Haram’s internal rift probably isn’t good news. Here’s why,” Washington Post, August 24, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/08/24/boko-harams-internal-rift-probably-isnt-good-news-heres-why/?utm_term=.2b74e181f0fe.

“Nigerian military jet 'mistakenly bombs refugee camp', killing more than 100 including 20 Red Cross volunteers,” Telegraph, January 17, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/17/nigerian-military-jet-mistakenly-bombs-refugee-camp-killing/.

Ron Nurwisah, “82 Chibok Schoolgirls Released In Boko Haram Prisoner Swap,” HuffPost Canada, May 07, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/05/07/chibok-schoolgirls-nigeria-boko-haram_n_16468882.html.

Alexis Okeowo, “Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram,” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 2014, http://nytimes.com/2014/11/09/magazine/inside-the-vigilante-fight-against-boko-haram.html.

———, “Missing,” New Yorker, May 26, 2014, http://newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/26/missing-4.

———, “Terror and Amnesty in Nigeria,” New Yorker, May 3, 2013, http://newyorker.com/news/news-desk/terror-and-amnesty-in-nigeria.

Jacob Olidort, “What is Salafism? How a Nonpolitical Ideology Became a Political Force,” Foreign Affairs, November 24, 2015, http://foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2015-11-24/what-salafism.

Matthew T. Page, “Improving U.S. Anti-Corruption Policy in Nigeria,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 2016, http://cfr.org/nigeria/improving-us-anticorruption-policy-nigeria/p38123?cid=otr-marketing_use-NigeriaCorruption.

“Thousands of Children out of School,” Norwegian Refugee Council, June 12, 2018, https://www.nrc.no/news/2018/june/thousands-of-children-out-of-school/.

Sahara Reporters, “U.S. Scholars Warn Against Designation of Boko Haram As ‘Terrorist,’” May 24, 2012, http://saharareporters.com/2012/05/24/us-scholars-warn-against-designation-boko-haram-%E2%80%98terrorist%E2%80%99.

Dionne Searcey, “Uprooted by War, Threatened by Boko Haram and Desperate to Go Home,” New York Times, March 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/world/africa/boko-haram-nigeria-refu….

Dionne Searcey, “Women, Children and Razor Wire: Inside a Compound for Boko Haram Families,” The New York Times, October 10, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/11/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-maiduguri.html.

Dionne Searcey and Tony Iyare, “President Buhari’s Prolonged Absences Put Nigeria on Edge,” New York Times, May 08, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-buha….

Max Siollun, “The Jihadi Too Violent for ISIS,” Foreign Policy, October 3, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/03/the-jihadist-too-violent-for-isis-boko-haram-shekau/.

Alex Thurston, “‘The Disease is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview,” Analysis Paper 22, Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, January 2016, http://brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2016/01/boko-haram-ideology-thurston/brookings-analysis-paper_alex-thurston_final_web.pdf.

Sahara Reporters, “U.S. Scholars Warn Against Designation of Boko Haram As ‘Terrorist,’” May 24, 2012, http://saharareporters.com/2012/05/24/us-scholars-warn-against-designation-boko-haram-%E2%80%98terrorist%E2%80%99.

Philip J. Victor, “Nigeria’s Buhari Open to Negotiations with Boko Haram for Kidnapped Girls,” Al Jazeera America, October 16, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/16/nigeria-open-to-negotiations-with-boko-haram.html.

Christopher Vourlias, “Fears Linger Around Nigerian President’s Commitment to a Free Press,” Al Jazeera America, April 7, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/7/fears-linger-about-nigerian-presidents-commitment-to-press-freedom.html.  


Quotation Sources

White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and President Buhari of Nigeria Before Bilateral Meeting,” July 20, 2015, http://whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/07/20/remarks-president-obama-and-president-buhari-nigeria-bilateral-meeting.

Human Rights Watch, “US/Nigeria: Obama Should Raise Rights with Buhari: New Leader’s First Visit Since Taking Office,” July 20, 2015, http://hrw.org/news/2015/07/20/us/nigeria-obama-should-raise-rights-buhari.

Vanguard, “Food Crisis in North East Nigeria like Darfur, in South Sudan, says UN,” July 11, 2016, http://vanguardngr.com/2016/07/food-crisis-north-east-nigeria-like-darfur-south-sudan-says-un.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.