Reports of another suicide bombing of a Catholic church last Sunday in the central Nigerian city of Jos and that killed 11 and injured 22, have fuelled debates about whether Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group claiming responsibility for the attack, is being supported by the global terrorist franchise al-Qaeda. The attack follows the Christmas Day bombings of three churches in northern Nigeria that killed 35 and led several Nigerian politicians and public figures such as President Goodluck Jonathan and Wole Soyinka, to suggest that Nigeria, a nation made up of an equal number of Muslims and Christians, was on the path to a sectarian civil war.

Boko Haram, which loosely translates into “against Western education” in the Hausa language, has grabbed headlines in Nigeria in recent years for its lethal attacks on military barracks and police stations throughout northern Nigeria. But over the past year Boko Haram’s attacks have become more complex and directed at Christian civilians.

Senior public officials — including the head of the United States Africa Command (Africom), Carter Ham, and Owoye Azazi, the security adviser to Goodluck Jonathan — have stated their belief that there is a connection between Boko Haram and the global terror network al-Qaeda. But scholars and security analysts remain sceptical. Yet Boko Haram does appear to be exhibiting certain characteristics of the global terrorist franchise, among them, the release of video messages, the use of suicide bombers, attacks on symbolic targets over the past year — such as the UN headquarters in Abuja — and continuing attacks on churches.

But before these attacks, in 2005, security analysts in Washington began to argue the Sahel region was the newest front in Islamic terrorism because of the presence of a group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since then the American government has pledged roughly $120 million-$150 million a year toward fighting terrorism in the Sahelian nations of Algeria, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Chad, mainly in the form of training security forces and military exercises.

AQIM has its roots in the Salafist Group for the Predication and Combat (GSPC) that emerged during the Algerian Civil War that raged between 1992 and 1998 and killed more than 150,000 people. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on state military forces in Algeria and Mauritania and kidnappings of Western tourists in countries such as Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali.

“The attraction that al-Qaeda exerted on the North African group was first expressed through a statement made in early 2003 by its then-leader Nabil Sahraoui expressing unilateral support to al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden,” says Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, an analyst at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

By late 2006 GSPC had affiliated with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as AQIM. The group claimed responsibility for the killing of four French tourists in southern Mauritania and the killings of three Mauritanian soldiers.

While AQIM has affiliated itself with al-Qaeda in name, some analysts question the substance of its ideological ties.

Laurence Aïda Ammour, a specialist on security in the Sahel region at the Bordeaux Institute for Political Sciences, argues that there is no coherent ideology that binds AQIM.  “The ideological, political and religious elements aren’t really there,” she says. “AQIM mix the abduction of foreigners, car and cigarette smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing and many consider AQIM’s motivations more criminal than political or religious.”

Ammour claims this view was reinforced by a “summit” held in Guinea Bissau in 2010 between Colombian drug traffickers and AQIM.

Like several scholars, Ammour argues that AQIM uses its connection with al-Qaeda as means of attracting media publicity to generate more ransom money. AQIM is said to have accumulated about $130 million in less than a decade from kidnapping an estimated 50 Westerners in the region and holding them in camps in Mali for ransom, according to the Associated Press.

Islamic fundamentalism is nothing new in Nigeria. In the 1970s a movement known as Maitatsine emerged as a result of the popularity of a Cameroonian imam, known has Marwa, who was based in Kano and preached against perceived government oppression. Marwa was killed in 1980 by security forces and the group disbanded. But in 2000, an organisation dubbed “the Nigerian Taliban” emerged, which preached against Western culture and for the imposition of sharia law throughout Nigeria. However, the group clashed with security forces and dissipated in 2004.

Boko Haram emerged around this time when an imam named Mohammed Yusuf began forming schools and teaching radical Islamic ideology. He also preached the need to impose sharia law across Nigeria’s northern states. Police arrested Yusuf who later died in custody in 2009. In a report released later that year Human Rights Watch said Nigerian security forces had carried out human rights violations and extra-judicial killings in their pursuit of the Boko Haram, among them the killing of Yusuf — despite denials by the Nigerian authorities. After the death of its leader, Boko Haram began its campaign of violent attacks against police stations and military installations.

So what of Boko Haram and its connections to other organisations such as AQIM and even al-Shabab? In an interview with London’s Guardian, Boko Haram’s spokesperson Abu Qaqa said the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau and others had travelled to Saudi Arabia for training and funding.

Over the past year Boko Haram has committed increasingly sophisticated attacks, which seems to support to this claim of the group having received training outside of Nigeria.

Mohamedou cautiously agrees, but says it is still difficult to know the exact extent of the connection to al-Qaeda or AQIM.“It is difficult to know whether they are emulating or actually receiving some kind of training,” he says. “We have seen people speak on the organisation’s behalf and there is a potential that a more hierarchical structure could emerge, but its still in its infancy.”

John Campbell, a former American ambassador to Nigeria, is more forthright. He dismisses claims from Nigeria’s authorities and Boko Haram itself that there are ties between the group and larger terrorist networks and suggests it could be a means through which the government is trying to attract defence funding from the US. Nigeria’s security and defence expenditure accounts for 25% of its annual budget.

“Pardon my cynicism, but it means money,” says Campbell. “If Boko Haram is connected to AQIM and al-Shabab, the government could appeal to the US for defence funding.”

Campbell also argues that Qaqa’s public statements on the connections between the groups may just be a means of increasing their visibility and prestige.

Last year a US Congressional report claimed that Boko Haram posed a direct threat to US security interests, and the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Ham stated that Boko Haram had direct links to al-Qaeda. But in recent months the US government seems to be increasingly cautious in how it defines the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government.

Deputy director for the Bureau of African Affairs in the Office of West African Affairs, Jason Small says the US is currently aiding the Nigerian government in the form of training of military and police officers. Small says the US government does not view Boko Haram as an anti-Western group, but is cautious of the perception US engagement with the Nigerian government by northern Nigerians.

“Could they take on a more anti-Western focus and could we invite more anti-Western attention by supporting the Nigeria government?” asks Small. “Yes. We are trying to be as careful as possible, talking about the group with the government and its intentions, and looking at where we can be helpful.”

Small says the US does not see Boko Haram, AQIM and Al-Shabaab as interlinked, but emphasises there has been contact between various groups that could be of concern. He adds that the US does not see AQIM expanding beyond the Sahel region at this stage.

“Their [AQIM’s] operation has not been all that spectacular and it has been largely constrained to the Sahel region, but because we don’t see the reach of AQIM expanding it doesn’t mean that it is a threat we should ignore,” Small says.

“These groups do describe the ideologies of global jihad and that is something we cannot ignore.”

Comfort Ero, the Africa program director at the International Crisis Group says that there are many complex factors at play, among them ethnicity, manipulation by political elites and the ongoing economic decline in the region.

“Boko Haram emerges from within a tradition of Islamic radicalism in the region, but the roots of its evolution are complex and linked to a hostile and sometimes violent rejection of Nigeria’s secular state,” Ero says. “The history of violence in the region is linked to complex and interlocking factors including political manipulation, ethnic and religious rivalries, the failure of the state, economic decline and historical grievances.”

Those who live and work in the region, such as Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria a civil rights group based in Kaduna has said the killing of Mohammed Yousuf and the violent repression of the group by security forces, coupled with economic deprivation and unemployment in the region has catalysed the escalating violence.

“The immediate issue has to do with the extrajudicial killings of their founder Mohammed Yousuf,” Sani says. “This motivated the group to take up arms against the state. The second aspect of it, is the economic issues. There is the economic disparity between the northern and southern part of Nigeria and this has left the northern part poorer and more economically disadvantaged, making religion prone to the growth of extremist ideas.”

Figures from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics point to major economic disparities between northern and southern states in Nigeria, with an incredibly high rate of poverty throughout the majority of northern states. According to the statistics 70% of the north-west lives in absolute poverty, 69% in the north-east, where Maduiguiri, Boko Haram’s home base is located, and 59% in north-central. In comparison, the poverty rate in southern states ranges between 50-60%. Many industries in the northern region have collapsed and unemployment, particularly among youths is endemic.

Boko Haram’s spokesperson Abu Qaqa has said that the group plans to spread sharia law throughout the region. But some analysts say this is not its main goal and its anger is directed primarily at the government of Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Nigerian, and the Nigerian state.

“I think their basic agenda for now is the Nigerian state. Most likely they don’t want to bite off more than they can chew,” says Sani. “Their demands are purely local and there has been no real animousity expressed towards the West, but it might be possible in the future.”

Sani helped facilitate peace talks between the former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasango and members of Boko Haram last year, but said the talks fell through because of the government wouldn’t agree to the group’s demands for the release of members of the group from prison and the reconstruction of houses and their schools that were demolished during security operations.

President Goodluck Jonathan is said to be participating in peace talks with Boko Haram through an intermediary, according to Sahara reporters, a Nigerian-focused news website based in New York.

The International Crisis Group and local civil society organisations have expressed concern about the Nigerian government’s forceful response to the issue. Since early January a state of emergency has been imposed where attacks by Boko Haram have been committed.

“The government has not instilled confidence among Nigerians in its handling of Boko Haram,” Ero says. “Its heavy-handed military response has not been enough despite some of the recent arrests as well as the killing of at least eight Boko Haram militants on February 20 in their home, Maiduguri, capital of the north-eastern state of Borno. The government must build political support, especially in the north, in pursuing a dual approach of ending Boko Haram’s deadly capabilities and outreach to the group.”

But Sani suggests that the recent arrest of the group’s spokesperson, Abu Qaqa, and the recent killing of eight Boko Haram members by security forces has made the possibility of peace talks more remote. After the Christmas Day bombings Jonathan said that he was willing to engage in dialogue, but recent peace talks have failed to eventuate.

“They still have the belief that force can bring down the group,” says Sani. “More innocent dying and are being effected by the use of force. The more innocent people are dying the more recruits Boko Haram will have.”

*Clair MacDougall is a journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia. She writes and blogs about West Africa at North of Nowhere and more of her writing can be found here.

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