With a devastating attack that killed at least 18 people at a United Nations compound, a Nigerian sect has announced its arrival as the latest African group with growing links to global terrorist networks.
Boko Haram, a militantly anti-Western Islamist group that has conducted scores of assassinations and bombings in Nigeria in the past two years, has claimed responsibility for the massive car bomb on Friday at the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja.
In the apparent suicide bombing, an explosives-laden car smashed through two security barriers and blew up inside the glass-walled entrance of the building where about 400 UN employees work. Bodies and body parts were left strewn around the compound after the explosion, which destroyed the lower floors of the building.
It was one of the deadliest attacks on the UN anywhere in the world in the past decade, and it represented a dramatic escalation of Boko Haram’s terrorism campaign. By choosing an international target for the first time, and by using the same technology as foreign terrorists, Boko Haram appears to be signalling its links with al-Qaeda and its network of militant organizations in the Middle East and Africa.
“It’s like an initiation requirement for al-Qaeda,” said Martin Ewi, an international crime researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, an African think-tank based in Pretoria.
“They’re trying to demonstrate their weaponry and their sophistication. The tactic is purely international. They’re taking the same track as al-Qaeda – they start as a domestic organization, then they join al-Qaeda and they have to prove that they have an international profile.”
Two other African militant groups have forged links with al-Qaeda in recent years. One is al-Shabab, the radical Islamist militia that is battling the Western-backed peacekeeping force in Somalia. The other is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in the Sahel region of northern and western Africa, which was responsible for the kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in Niger in 2008.
Until 2006, suicide bombings were unknown in Africa. But they became common in Somalia after al-Shabab developed its connections to al-Qaeda, and this year they are surfacing in Nigeria for the first time. In June, Boko Haram used a suicide bombing to kill several people at the Nigerian police headquarters in Abuja.
General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. military operations in Africa, said last week that Boko Haram has already made contacts with al-Qaeda and al-Shabab, and has a clear intent to “co-ordinate and synchronize” with AQIM. Both the Somali group and the Sahel group have ranged beyond their domestic borders to attack foreign targets, including UN employees.
Boko Haram has publicly praised al-Qaeda and claimed that its members have received training in Somalia from al-Shabab fighters. It has also reportedly kidnapped a Briton and an Italian in northern Nigeria, and turned them over to AQIM.
Statements by AQIM this year have sometimes praised Boko Haram and offered weaponry to the Nigerian Islamist organization. There is also video evidence to suggest that AQIM has a number of members from northern Nigeria.
The decision to build links with al-Qaeda is “a survival strategy” for groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab, which could otherwise suffer a decline in their membership, Mr. Ewi said. “It provides them with international recruitment, so they can get operatives from all over the world.”
Andrew Lebovich, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation who studies terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa, cautioned that there is no concrete proof of operational links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. But an “increased ideological alignment” between the two groups is “entirely possible,” he said.
Alex Thurston, a U.S. scholar who studies religion and politics in the Sahel, said there is “significant circumstantial evidence” of a connection between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Somalia and the Sahel. The attack on the UN compound in Abuja may have been aimed at embarrassing the Nigerian government and showing that its military deployment in northern Nigeria cannot stop the group from carrying out major attacks, he said.
Boko Haram, whose name literally means “Western education is a sin,” seeks to destroy secular government and create a strictly Islamic state in the Muslim regions of northern Nigeria. The group was created in 2002 by a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf. It was peaceful at first, but in 2009 it launched an armed uprising in northern Nigeria.
Its rebellion was crushed by the Nigerian military, leaving more than 800 people dead. Most of the dead were Boko Haram members, including Mr. Yusuf himself, who was killed in police custody.
Since then, the group has gone underground, and its command structure is mysterious. But it has shown an ability to organize across many regions of Nigeria.
Analysts say the rise of Boko Haram is more than a religious phenomenon. It has capitalized on widespread anger at government corruption, poverty and unemployment.