Nigeria’s government said Saturday it will postpone its Feb. 14 presidential election following a surge of violence by Boko Haram, as U.S. intelligence officials warned that the shadowy jihadist group has seized roughly 30 villages and towns over the past year and is now capable of going “toe-to-toe” with Nigerian military forces.
Boko Haram has during recent months taken control of a widening cache of military-grade weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, from retreating Nigerian troops, according to the officials, who said the group has some 5,000 fighters behind its growing effort to carve out and control territory in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
What began nearly a decade ago as a radical movement against the Nigerian government’s corruption and perceived closeness to the West, has exploded over the past four years into “a significant threat” to all four of the nations, with Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau driven increasingly “to establish an Islamic State in Central Africa,” one U.S. intelligence official said.
However, that official, along with others who spoke with reporters Friday, pushed back against recent claims by analysts outside the U.S. government, who assert the African terrorist group has growing ties to the Mideast-based Islamic State movement known as ISIL or ISIS, which erupted in Syria and Iraq last year and has been spreading during recent months to North Africa.
The officials said Boko Haram’s leader has clearly shown “affinity” for ISIL in propaganda videos produced and circulated over the past year, but there is no reliable evidence of human contact between the two groups. More specifically, the officials said, it remains unclear how ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an ethnically Arab extremist from Iraq, feels about the developments occurring deep inside Africa.
“The Arab world is still incredibly racist and so the idea that Arab jihadists would accept black African jihadists as their equivalents needs to be considered,” said one U.S. intelligence official.
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The remark hung in the backdrop Saturday, as Nigeria’s government continued to reel in the face a grisly series of attacks and raids being carried out by Boko Haram fighters in the nation’s northeast and across its borders into Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
An official close to Nigeria’s electoral commission told The Associated Press that the commission will postpone the nation’s Feb. 14 presidential and legislative elections for six weeks to give a new multinational force time to secure northeastern areas under the sway of Boko Haram.
Millions could be disenfranchised if the voting went ahead while the Islamic extremists hold a large swath of the northeast and commit mayhem that has driven 1.5 million people from their homes, the news wire reported.
The U.S. State Department quickly pushed back Saturday. Washington “looks to Nigeria to hold these elections on time,” the department’s deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
“The U.S. government has provided direct support to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as it seeks to conduct credible and peaceful elections, and we will continue to support the efforts of INEC Chairman Attahiru Jega to bring about this result,” Mrs. Harf said.
The militaries of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, meanwhile, have engaged in airstrikes and growing ground offensive against Boko Haram fighters over the past two weeks. And, African Union officials are reportedly close to establishing a 7,500-strong multinational force to try and take back villages and towns now held by the extremists.
But the AP reported Saturday that details of funding for such a force remain unclear and may delay the mission, since the African Union wants the United Nations and European Union to provide assistance for the initiative.
In the interim, Boko Haram has continued carried out attacks inside Cameroon and Niger, killing more than 100 civilians and wounding as many as 500, according to reports. Niger’s defense minister claimed Saturday that his nation’s forces had killed more 100 Boko Haram fighters in clashes with the extremists.
Boko Haram ramped up the ferocity and tempo of its attacks in a campaign that began last month with the alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 people in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga. Witnesses have described the campaign as ominously comparable to that carried out by ISIS fighters last year in northern Iraq.
While the two groups are divided by some 3,000 miles, speculation about a connection between them has swirled since Abubakar Shekau pledged support to ISIS in a video circulated by Boko Haram in July. Analysts say a subsequent video, circulated in August, declared Boko Haram’s intention to recreate an ancient Islamic caliphate that once included parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
On the ISIS side, recent editions of the Islamic State’s glossy propaganda magazine “Dabiq” made reference to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Christian women in northern Nigeria as justification for the Syria- and Iraq-based group’s own kidnapping and sexual enslavement of non-Muslim women in the Mideast.
The connections have prompted some analysts to predict that Boko Haram is now bent on embracing the Islamic State’s model for extremist jihad, not only in northern Nigeria but across the heart of Africa.
But the U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to reporters Friday said the group is likely to grow more vulnerable the more territory it controls. Boko Haram’s approach, the officials said, has been to either kill or forcefully evacuate people from towns and villages it seizes.
“One problem they will have is crops won’t be harvested and they won’t be able to feed themselves,” said one intelligence official. “The rape and pillage philosophy only works — only if you can continue expanding out.”