The State Department updated its travel warning for Nigeria this week, restricting travel by U.S. government personnel to northern parts of the West African nation and asserting the risk of "attacks against Western targets in Nigeria remains high."
The warning arrives days after the shadowy Islamist sect, Boko Haram, took responsibility for a suicide car-bombing that killed three people and wounded 39 outside a Christian church in central Nigeria.
The blast was the latest in a string of terrorist attacks claimed by Boko Haram and highlighted rising religious tension between Muslims and Christians in the oil-rich yet impoverished nation.
"Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in which different ethnic and religious groups often live in the same area," the State Department travel warning said, adding that the violence is "exacerbating tensions along those lines."
The warning cites a host of attacks by Boko Haram during the past year, including the choreographed series of car bombings that hit Nigerian law enforcement posts Jan. 20, and August's suicide attack that killed 25 people at the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria.
The State Department notes that more than 150 Boko Haram members escaped from a prison in central Nigeria in September 2010.
Some of them "may now be participating in attacks in other parts of the country," it said.
The updated warning reflects rising U.S. concerns toward Boko Haram, particularly the group's activities in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. It also notes danger in several parts of the mainly Christian south, where non-Muslim militants have a history of staging violent attacks on Western-owned oil platforms.
State Department officials have cautioned on background against characterizing Nigeria's violence as purely driven by religious rage. They say the violence is equally motivated by cross-cultural frustration over government corruption, and the failure of Nigeria's nation's oil wealth to improve the lives of Nigeria's impoverished masses.
The rise of Boko Haram, however, has drawn the attention of international law-enforcement and counterterrorism authorities during recent months.
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, has repeatedly cautioned about potential links between Boko Haram and more internationally minded terrorist groups in the region, specifically al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The State Department, meanwhile, recently confirmed reports that the FBI is assisting Nigerian authorities in their attempts to respond to the violence.
"A bomb technician has been in Nigeria working with the Nigerian government on the ongoing investigations of the recent bombings," said Hilary F. Renner, chief spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.
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