Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram Group Really Tied to Al Qaeda?

A string of increasingly brutal attacks – along with reports that Boko Haram may soon hit Nigeria's predominately Christian South – is bringing fresh scrutiny of the Islamist group.

Fellows Fall 2011

By David Francis

September 22, 2011

Also published in the Christian Science Monitor

Earlier this week, lawmakers, aides, and journalists in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja rushed into the streets after word spread that a bomb was planted in the National Assembly. Frantic calls to loved ones with reassurances of safety could be heard while police scrambled to find the explosive.

Nigerian authorities escort media through the village of Hayin-Uku near Abuja where they say a two-room bomb-making factory was found September 6. Authorities said they had arrested six suspected members or people connected with the violent Islamist sect Boko Haram, including a foreign fighter from Niger. Authorities are investigating the bombing of the U.N. headquarters on August 26 that killed 23 people in the Nigerian capital.
Photo: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

It turned out to be a false alarm. But Tuesday's panic was indicative of the fear that has gripped Abuja since Aug. 26. On that day, Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group based in Nigeria's north, detonated a bomb at the fortified United Nations headquarters, killing 23 people and injuring 76. The bomb, which gutted the entire first floor of the building, was carried in an SUV driven by a suicide bomber and member of the terrorist group. It was one of the worst attacks ever on a UN installation.

The bombing represents a dramatic escalation in violence by Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates to "western education is a sin." Previously, the group targeted more vulnerable objectives in Nigeria's north and the country's Middle Belt, the area separating the Christian south from the Muslim north. Since the UN bombing, the group has expanded its scope, threatening to bomb Nigerian universities and international targets, as well as issuing threats to politicians and journalists.

"There is going to be a continued campaign of violence and terrorism," says Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria. "I expect more violence very soon."

A violent history in Nigeria

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 when a radical preacher named Mohammed Yusuf began teaching unemployed and disaffected youth in the northeast state of Borno, one of the poorest regions of the country. Mr. Yusuf formed a fundamentalist school there, which attracted Muslim children from across northern Nigeria.

The group was known for its strict adherence to Islamic law, as well as the violence its members waged against those who opposed it. Boko Haram operated freely, committing violent acts across then north until Nigerian national security forces began to investigate them in 2009. In the course of the investigation, Yusuf was arrested. He died mysteriously while in police custody. His death led to clashes between police and the terrorist group that resulted in the deaths of some 700 Boko Haram members.

After Yusuf's death, the group broadened its mission to impose Islamic law not just in the north but also throughout Nigeria. It began a campaign of strategic violence, including political assassinations, attacks on police and federal security installations, and a series of bombings.

In the past year, the city of Jos in Plateau State, east of Abuja, has emerged as the frontline of the battle between the Boko Haram and Christian militants. Firefights occur daily. According to unofficial reports, hundreds of people have died there in the past year.

After the UN bombing, President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the Nigerian Air Force and Army into Jos. Casualties are expected to increase with the arrival of the military.

Concerns about Al Qaeda links

Days after the UN attack, Nigerian security services linked Boko Haram with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from Somalia, as well as Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group responsible for terrorist activity in northern Africa. This link immediately drew the attention of the United States, which pledged to help Nigeria track Boko Haram's finances. British High Commissioner in Nigeria Andrew Lloyd also promised to share intelligence and offered technological support.

Mr. Sani, who has facilitated talks between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, says the Al Qaeda connection is dubious, but helpful in drawing US and British attention to the problem. He blamed the heavy-handed approach by Mr. Jonathan's security forces in Jos and other areas of the north for the escalation in violence.

"In Jonathan's opinion, the government's best option is to continue to confront the militants," Sani says. "Associating them with Al Qaeda is an easy excuse, but these confrontations have been happening for years and lives have continually been lost. The use of force has not been able to address the problem."

In recent weeks, Sani has attempted to quell the conflict by arranging a meeting between former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and family members of slain Boko Haram leader Yusuf.

The talks fell apart. Sani, fearful for his life, is now in hiding.

Problem spreading south

Boko Haram's activities have been contained to Nigeria's north. But unconfirmed reports Wednesday indicated that Boko Haram members had arrived in Warri state in the Niger Delta with intentions of bombing oil facilities. If the group manages to disrupt Nigeria's oil output, the impact would be felt globally.

Their arrival would also signal the start of a dangerous new phase of the conflict.

The Niger Delta has been relatively violence-free since Christian militants there, who for years waged a guerilla war against oil companies in the region, were granted amnesty in 2009. But these militants are increasingly concerned about Boko Haram, and are mobilizing to confront them both in the Niger Delta and in the north, according to a source close to the militants. If this were to occur, this conflict could escalate to a holy war of sorts for the future of Nigeria.

"This problem has been contained to the north," Sani says, "but it is one that is hydra-headed. Incursions in the south would be disastrous."

David Francis reported from Nigeria on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).