A suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives through a security barrier and into the lobby of the U.N. headquarters building in Abuja, the Nigerian political capital on Friday, killing 23 people and wounding 76 more.
A Nigerian Muslim extremist group called Boko Haram took responsibility for the attack, and a U.S. official said intelligence reporting revealed that members of the group had trained at al Qaeda camps in nearby Mali.
“Some Boko Haram members trained with AQIM [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s North African affiliate] which probably contributed to this more violent attack,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in discussing intelligence matters.
Nigerian news media reported this week that some of those arrested in connection with the bombing attack were graduates of al Qaeda camps in Mali or of training from the extremist insurgent group al Shabab in Somalia.
The U.S. official declined to comment on the reports.
The Nigerian government has not made any official comments about the arrests, but President Goodluck Jonathan promised an overhaul of the country’s security apparatus, including, according to one report, compulsory biometric registration for all foreigners living in the country.
If the report that the bombing was linked to extremists trained in AQIM camps is confirmed, it will be “an important data point,” said Andrew Lebovich, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation.
“It is one of the pieces of hard evidence we have been waiting for” outlining links between the Nigerian group and the global extremist network founded by Osama bin Laden, he said. But he cautioned that the arrest of training-camp graduates “doesn’t necessarily tell us how extensive or strong the linkages are” between the groups.
Earlier this month, after meeting senior Nigerian officials in Lagos, the commander of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, said “multiple sources” of intelligence indicated there are growing ties between Boko Haram and AQIM and al Shabab.
“What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts,” the general told Associated Press. “I’m not so sure they’re able to do that just yet, but it’s clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that.”
Mr. Jonathan is pursuing talks with Boko Haram, but it is unclear what the future of that initiative is likely to be in the wake of Friday’s bombing. If AQIM is indeed behind the U.N. bombing, the Nigerian president may face pressure to break off his attempts at dialogue with the group. (The largest of its own attacks was the 2007 double-suicide car bombing of another U.N. headquarters, in Algeria.)
A successful entry into Nigeria by al Qaeda would represent a new theater of war for the group in a country that has one of the largest Muslim populations and is one of the largest oil producers in the world. It also would be a much-needed boost to the terror network, whose central leadership in Pakistan has been reduced repeatedly by U.S. drone strikes.
Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden by Islam” in the Hausa dialect, which is spoken in the majority-Muslim north of Nigeria. The group, formed in 2003, advocates the establishment of a Taliban-like Islamic law regime in all of Nigeria. It is active in several of the 12 northern states where some form of shariah, or Islamic jurisprudence, is already in force. About half of the population in this vast and diverse country of 155 million are Muslims and 40 are percent Christian.