Collusion between the shadowy northern Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is raising the specter that internationally linked Islamic terrorism may be reaching deeper into the heart of Africa than the Obama administration is willing to acknowledge.
A clash between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces killed nearly 200 people this month, and foreign policy insiders say the group has become increasingly sophisticated and is making more use of such military hardware as rocket-propelled grenades from jihadist smuggling networks tied to Mali and Libya.
The State Department has designated three Boko Haram leaders as “global terrorists” with “close links” to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But the administration appears to be acquiescing to Nigeria’s government, which is accused of committing human rights abuses while attempting to negotiate with Boko Haram.
State Department officials have become engaged in an internal debate about how to publicly define the Boko Haram threat and how the U.S. should be responding to the violence in Africa’s top oil-producing nation.
“There is cooperation between Boko Haram and [AQIM],” one State Department official told The Washington Times last week. “But we should be careful not to conflate the groups. Most individuals who call themselves Boko Haram are focused primarily on local Nigerian issues and respond principally to political and security developments within Nigeria.”
Although U.S. authorities are “of course concerned about the growing sophistication and lethality of attacks ascribed to Boko Haram,” the official said, “we are equally concerned about the continued heavy-handed response of Nigerian security forces.”
Some analysts say the administration may be in denial of the extent to which Boko Haram is linked, ideologically and now logistically, to North Africa’s top al Qaeda outfit — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — which seized control of a large swath of nearby Mali before it was ousted by French military forces this year.
“The fact that AQIM became a leader in the coalition that ruled northern Mali for almost a year and had free rein to operate in northern Mali, and store very high-powered weapons that originated in Libya, and had the ability to move them south and west, into Nigeria through Niger — that’s huge,” said Jacob Zenn, who has written extensively on Boko Haram for the Jamestown Foundation.
“Once AQIM took power with a coalition in northern Mali, you saw more rocket-propelled grenade attacks in Nigeria,” said Mr. Zenn, presently a legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. “So there was a link between the two chronologically.”
It is not clear whether a sea shift is occurring in the way others in Washington perceive Boko Haram.
“A year ago, those of us who were watching closely, we were cautious about what we could reasonably say about the external links with what was called ‘Boko Haram,’” said Peter M. Lewis, who heads the Africa Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“Now there’s clear evidence that some elements of this group or this network definitely have operational and ideological ties with some elements of AQIM and possibly other Salafist armed groups operating in the Sahel,” said Mr. Lewis, referring to the vast geographic tract that runs west to east across Africa just south of the Sahara.
Despite such ties, Mr. Lewis defended the Obama administration’s unhurried posture, asserting that the situation in northern Nigeria is complex because Boko Haram remains as much an ill-defined label used by petty local criminals as it is a hard-line, internationally connected Islamic terrorist group.
“If you slap a foreign terrorist organization designation on Boko Haram,” he said, the result may galvanize an otherwise local conflict into more of a pitched battle between jihadists and the West.
Furthermore, Mr. Lewis said, the U.S. is not in a position to “dictate terms” to Nigeria’s government about how to deal with the situation. Although the State Department provided roughly $3 million in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria in 2012, the funds were minute compared with the tens of billions of dollars Nigeria generates in annual oil revenue.
As a result, the Obama administration has appeared willing to quietly back efforts by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to create an amnesty program in which Boko Haram members might avoid prosecution in exchange for laying down their weapons.
A similar approach in recent years succeeded in taming militant activity in Nigeria’s Christian south. But the effort has not yielded significant results in the predominantly Muslim north.
It also is complicated by claims that the Jonathan government’s security forces are running rampant in northern Nigeria.
A Human Rights Watch report in October cited the implication of the security forces in such “serious human rights violations” as execution-style killings of detainees.
Such claims were punctuated by the high number of casualties after a two-day battle between the security forces and members of Boko Haram in the fishing town of Baga on April 19 and 20. Some reports suggested that the death toll soared to nearly 200 after security forces began burning down homes and killing civilians in response to a smaller attack by Boko Haram.
The incident appeared to cause irritation at the State Department, where Secretary of State John F. Kerry engaged in pre-scheduled talks last week with Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ayodeji Ashiru.
Before the meeting, a State Department official told The Times that “heavy-handed tactics by security forces reinforce a perception that the government is unjust and abusive, which extremists have capitalized upon.”
“We recommend the Nigerian government employ a comprehensive security strategy that is not predicated on a force-based approach, [but] also addresses the economic and political exclusion of vulnerable communities in the north,” the official said.
With regard to specific activities of Boko Haram, however, neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Ashiru made mention of the group by name during public remarks Thursday.
The rhetorical sidestep may be explained by their desire to avoid lending legitimacy to the group, but also might stem from a general agreement that Boko Haram’s activities — violent as they may be — are unlikely to disrupt Nigeria’s oil operations.
The nation is one of the top foreign oil providers to the U.S. and a growing provider of oil and liquid natural gas to key U.S. allies, most notably Japan. The oil operations are centered along Nigeria’s southern coastline, far from Boko Haram’s base in the north.