- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2012

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.

“It’s extremely extreme. It’s definitely Salafist radical. Their inspiration is the Taliban. They used to be the Nigerian Taliban. They’ve put out statements saying, ‘We admire what the Taliban did,’” Mr. Zenn said. “They kill religious and political leaders that are more moderate. They don’t show any type of mercy.”

In Mali, military operatives overthrew the democratically elected leader in a coup in March. Tuareg rebels, helped by Islamist insurgents, then seized control of the northern portion of the country in a matter of weeks. The insurgents later ousted the Tuaregs and assumed control of the region.

The Obama administration is motivated to remove northern Mali as a base for AQIM, which may have been involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

The question of intervention

Mrs. Clinton met Monday with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers to seek his nation’s military and/or intelligence help in combating al Qaeda in the region.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the concept of an African-led military force to aid Mali’s army in fighting the Islamic insurgents but has not provided any details.

Under one plan, Mali’s embattled government in the south and its West African neighbors would take the military lead to battle with the militants, with the United States and European countries in support, The Associated Press reported.

Any military intervention likely would require the involvement of Algeria, whose reforms have headed off the type of Arab Spring tumult experienced by neighbors Libya and Tunisia.

Mr. Zenn said Boko Haram has been able to make such significant gains in Nigeria in part because of government corruption.

Some Muslim government and military officials in Nigeria support Boko Haram’s goals of disenfranchising secular Muslim and Christian politicians as well as those who advocate electoral democracy, he said.

Mr. Zenn said Boko Haram has been trying to set up a shadow government in Nigeria and has begun intimidating civilians to pay taxes to it.

The United States could help Nigeria better safeguard its borders, Mr. Zenn said, and some sort of military intervention in Mali next year appears inevitable.

But he stressed that intervention has to be coordinated with West African nations so as not to create more instability in the region.

“We can root out the militants, but where will they go? Will they seep into Nigeria or Niger?” he asked rhetorically.