In Africa, an Islamist convergence seen as a threat

Boko Haram may ally with al Qaeda branch

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The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has conducted terrorist attacks in Nigeria that bring it closer to al Qaeda in northern Mali, making linkages between the groups more likely and more dangerous, according to a paper published by the Combating Terrorism Center.

In the past year, Boko Haram has carried out several large-scale attacks across a 900-mile swath of Nigeria, roughly the distance between New York City and Atlanta, the paper states. That puts the Nigerian extremists just 300 miles from northern Mali, which is controlled by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other affiliated groups.

Boko Haram, which aims to overthrow Nigeria’s government, and al Qaeda advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam.

The danger is that it is much easier for Boko Haram and AQIM to coordinate their operations, said the paper’s author, Jacob Zenn, a West Africa analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a strategic research think tank in Washington. The Combating Terrorism Center is at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The report was released as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Algeria to seek its help in supporting any international intervention in Mali and counter al Qaeda insurgents at its southern border.

Nigerians have crossed into Mali to join al Qaeda and could cross back into their own country, Mr. Zenn said. What’s more, Boko Haram militants could learn bomb-making and other deadly skills from their AQIM compatriots.

“It’s a one-day road trip to get to Mali [from Nigeria],” Mr. Zenn said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Washington Times.

He said Boko Haram’s attacks and weaponry have become “dramatically” more sophisticated and noted that the Nigerian militants’ most lethal assaults have occurred in the country’s northwestern area, close to al Qaeda-controlled territory in Mali.

The group has killed hundreds of Nigerians, including women and children, in bombings across the West African nation — at Christian churches and other religious and political targets. Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” conducted its most recent attack Sunday.

“It used to be a group that would drive around on motorcycles using guns and machetes,” Mr. Zenn said. “These aren’t shooting attacks.”

Mutual benefits

The analyst said there are no formal linkages between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and no evidence that they intend to join forces, but the militant groups could help each other achieve their goals.

Kidnapping, drug smuggling and gunrunning account for a huge portion of AQIM’s funding, he said. Working with Boko Haram in West Africa would enable al Qaeda to expand its operations and increase its size and strength.

In addition, Nigeria’s oil-production industry lies in the predominantly Christian south, where Boko Haram has begun to expand its operations. Both militant groups could gain a significant source of funding if they are able to control the oil-producing south.

Working with al Qaeda would help Boko Haram achieve its goals of overthrowing the Nigerian government and its moderate Islamic leaders and establishing a fundamentalist Islamic government, he said.

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