The signs are ominous: A terrorist group in northern Nigeria claims to have trained with Al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, and vows to launch international attacks after a deadly bombing last month of the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
The head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, has warned of the threat of a pan-African Al Qaeda-linked terrorism network capable of endangering Western interests across the continent.
And Nigerian intelligence experts have suggested that another Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, may be supplying personnel, weapons and training to the Nigerian group, Boko Haram.
Fear of an Al Qaeda link is based on Boko Haram’s more aggressive and sophisticated operations, from drive-by motorcycle shootings a year ago to large-scale car suicide bombings in recent months. There also are website boasts: Boko Haram posted pictures of its fighters purportedly training in Somalia with Al Qaeda affiliate Shabab.
But with no hard evidence, analysts are skeptical that Boko Haram’s shift in tactics and focus heralds the rise of an Al Qaeda network stretching from Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania through Nigeria and on to Somalia.
“It’s clear that it’s changed its targets and its tactics and its field of operations,” said Stephen Harmon of Pittsburg State University in Kansas, an expert on northern African terrorist groups. But as to its future threat, he said, “I don’t have a very clear answer. No one really does.”
Boko Haram said its attack on the United Nations headquarters, which killed 23 people and injured dozens, was in reprisal for Nigerian authorities’ maltreatment of Boko Haram suspects. The explanation bore none of the sort of anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric that is one of Al Qaeda’s hallmarks.
The group has launched dozens of attacks in northern Nigeria this year, including the bombing of a police headquarters in June that killed six people, but gained little international attention until the attack on the U.N. building.
“There’s a perverse logic to internationalizing terrorism that incentivizes attacking international targets,” said Andrew Lebovich, an expert on AQIM at the New America Foundation. “The fact of all the attention on Boko Haram is a clear indication of the benefits of hitting the U.N.,” he said. But he cautioned that the self-advertising potential of such attacks could suggest that Boko Haram was changing tactics for its own reasons, and that one needn’t surmise an Al Qaeda link.
“At this point we have so little evidence of a link between Boko Haram and AQIM. I think we have to be really careful about how we talk about this new phase from Boko Haram. Obviously it’s a worrying sign, but I’d want to see evidence before I was convinced of cooperation.”
The militant group emerged seven years ago, calling itself the Taliban and modeling itself on its Afghan namesake. Led by a radical preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, it aimed to create sharia rule across the country, including the Christian-dominated south, where the nation’s oil wealth is concentrated.
Several years later, members changed the name to Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is a sin.” And the group launched attacks on the symbols of the Nigerian state in the north, especially police stations. A resulting battle in the northeastern city of Maiduguri in July 2009 saw hundreds of Boko Haram fighters killed; afterward, Yusuf died there in police custody.
The group seemed shattered, but it regrouped under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, a shadowy figure about whom little is known. In an interview with The Times last year, a spokesman who gave his name only as Musa denied any financial support from Al Qaeda but said the group derived its ideological foundation from the international militant group. He said hundreds of fighters were aligned with Boko Haram.
“They’re underground, they’re everywhere, in every northern state. And they’re armed,” he said, claiming that being forced underground in 2009, instead of living under the eye of authorities, had proved a blessing.
Unlike AQIM, which gets substantial funds from kidnapping and smuggling, Boko Haram’s main source of funds has been the assets of its members, who are encouraged to sell all their material goods and hand over the proceeds to leaders. The need for funding to recruit and support members and buy weapons and explosives is a powerful motive for linking up with AQIM.
Boko Haram has some support in the north, where the unemployment rate is high and young people living in dire poverty are angered by the ruling party’s failure to share the benefits of oil with the north. But as attacks have increased on civilian targets, public backing has waned.
In the capital, the group bombed a crowded fish market on New Year’s Eve and attacked a beer garden in May. Hundreds of civilians have been killed this year in more than 70 attacks, the vast majority of them in the north.
Its base, Maiduguri, has been hardest hit, with businesses closing, people shunning public gatherings and motorcycle transportation (used heavily for both people and goods) banned by the state government.
Martin Ewi, an analyst at the Pretoria, South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, sees Boko Haram’s targeting of the U.N. as “a deliberate strategic choice aimed at demonstrating that the group means business.”
“The attack on the UN headquarters completes Boko Haram’s metamorphosis into an international terrorist group and represents a turning point for the future of terrorism in Nigeria,” Ewi wrote. “In reality, this means that moving forward the goal of islamisation or for spreading sharia shall not be confined to Nigeria and that other countries in the region are potential targets.”
But others question the extent of cooperation between the militant groups.
“I’d be surprised if there’s enough organizational sophistication on the part of both entities for some kind of relationship in terms of their organization and capacity,” said Thomas Cargill, Africa analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Harmon, of Pittsburg State, said there isn’t enough information about Boko Haram yet to predict the level of threat to Western targets.
“Unfortunately, in order to assess the threat, we have to wait and see if they attack again.”