- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2012

The scene in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano unfolded like a script that could only have been written by al Qaeda: Several explosives-laden cars driven by suicide bombers hit multiple police stations with choreographed attacks over the course of a single hour.

But the extent to which Boko Haram, the Islamist sect that claimed responsibility for the blasts that killed 185 people Jan. 20, is tied to al Qaeda remains a subject of international debate.

While senior U.S. officials, including Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, have suggested the Nigerian group has developed ties to the international terrorist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), some regional experts are circumspect.

Boko Haram, they argue, remains a nebulous and ill-defined national movement - less aligned with the globally focused tenets of al Qaeda than it is eager to embrace violence to combat injustice in Nigeria.

What few dispute is the sheer level of sophistication marking the terrorism now gripping the oil rich yet impoverished West African nation, whose predominantly Christian south is tensely divided from its mainly Muslim north.

Nigeria has never had a terrorist organization like this,” said Elizabeth Donnelly, the Africa program manager at London-based Chatham House, a British institution that analyzes international issues.

Several northern Nigerian sects, she said, have long embraced varied approaches to fundamentalist Islam.

The name Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is sin,” emerged as common parlance during the early 2000s for a sect engaging in smaller-scale attacks and raids on government entities.

Boko Haram gained a foothold among northern Muslims by portraying itself as an Islamic movement capable of taking action on behalf of the region’s impoverished masses.

Tensions escalated in 2009, when government security forces violently cracked down on the region. Nearly 200 people were killed, including Mohammed Yusuf, the movement’s purported spiritual leader, who died after being tortured while in police custody.

“At that point, it was believed by security forces that the job was done,” Ms. Donnelly said. “You take away the leader, and they assumed it was over.”

In August 2010, the movement suddenly gained global recognition when a group claiming to be Boko Haram declared itself responsible for a brazen suicide car bombing that killed 18 people at the U.N. headquarters building in the capital of Abuja.

According to a congressional report three months later, the U.N. bombing “marked a significant shift in the targeting and goals of the group, largely unknown to the U.S. intelligence community, and capped off an evolution in the capabilities of Boko Haram, beginning in the mid-2000s, from attacks with poisoned arrows and machetes to sophisticated car bombings.”

The report, titled “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” highlighted claims by senior U.S. military officials that members of the group are being trained by AQIM and are thought to have established “ties to the Somalian militant group al-Shabab.”

Such assertions have caused an uproar among some regional experts, including Jean Herskovitz, an Africa historian and Nigeria expert. She argues that Boko Haram has “never expressed goals of an international sort that would make it the kind of threat that is being portrayed in that report.”

“It’s really important to know that it is not at all clear that everything that is attributed to Boko Haram is actually done by them,” Ms. Herskovitz said.

Virginia Comolli, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that some media reports “have been exaggerating the level of the threat posed by Boko Haram regionally.”

“It’s very sexy to say that Boko Haram is linked to AQIM and al-Shabab,” said Mrs. Comolli. “However, even though some ties might exist and some Boko Haram people may have received some training perhaps in Somalia, I think that’s probably the extent of the relationship between Boko Haram and the broader Islamist network.”

Boko Haram is a very inward-directed movement,” she added.

John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 through 2007, says Boko Haram has been largely mischaracterized as a cohesive and unified terrorist group.

The government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the nation’s oil-rich southern delta region, is “misdefining what the problem is,” said Mr. Campbell.

“The southern government tends to blame everything on Boko Haram, so if a bank gets robbed, they say Boko Haram did it, even if that may not be true.”

Boko Haram is not an organization and should not be compared to something like the Irish Republican Army,” he said. “It’s more of a movement that has a number of different strands in it.”

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