ABUJA, Nigeria, Aug. 29 (UPI) — Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb killed 18 people in the suicide bombing of an Algerian military academy Friday while two days later an increasingly aggressive jihadist group blew up U.N. headquarters in Nigeria in another suicide attack, killing 23 people.
It was the first suicide bombing attributed to the Nigerian group known as Boko Haram as it steps up what has been a low-level insurgency against the oil-rich country’s federal government.
In both cases, Islamist militants used vehicles packed with high explosives. For the Algerian jihadists, who’ve been fighting the government since 1992, the attack on the academy east of Algiers, was almost a routine operation.
But for the Nigerian militants, the attack on the U.N. building in Abuja’s diplomatic district, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy, marked a deadly breakthrough in their operational learning curve that indicates they may have had some help from veteran terrorists.
This has raised suspicions that AQIM, al-Qaida’s seasoned North African affiliate, is moving south to infiltrate sub-Saharan Africa, whose vast reserves of oil is making it a strategically important region.
Security analysts say Nigeria faces a growing threat as its Muslim population, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, becomes more extremist. Nigeria, Africa’s most population nation, is roughly split between Muslims in the largely neglected north and Christians in the more developed south.
Boko Haram — in the northern Hausa language it means “Western education is sinful” — emerged several years ago in northeastern state of Borno demanding the introduction of Islamic religious law in the north.
The group, sometimes called the “Nigerian jihad,” gained infamy in sectarian violence that broke out the central region in 2009.
More than 800 people were killed in eye-for-an-eye massacres, often conducted by machete-wielding militants.
The army claimed to have exterminated the group in a major sweep after the mass killings but it has re-emerged in recent months, vowing to avenge the military’s killing of their leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
It has carried out a campaign of assassination against the security forces and displayed a greater grasp of terrorist tactics.
Until June, its attacks were confined to the remote northeast, on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, where AQIM operates. More than 150 people have been killed in bombings and shootings this year.
But Friday’s attack was the first to target foreigners as well as being its first suicide operation, lending some weight to the growing suspicions of links with AQIM.
The bombing was the second by Boko Haram using car bombs in three months. On June 16 they hit Nigeria’s national police headquarters in Abuja, the militants’ first operation in the capital.
Intelligence officials say they have evidence that some Boko Haram cadres have been trained in Niger under AQIM tutelage.
Earlier this month, U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, who recently took over the U.S. Africa Command, warned there were grounds to believe that Boko Haram was trying to link up with AQIM.
He said the Nigerians had also sought contacts with the al-Shabaab group based in Somalia, in East Africa, which has links to al Qaida, to step up its operations in Nigeria.
“There have been reports of a Boko Haram-AQIM relationship but so far that relationship may have been limited to small numbers of members interacting with the other,” observed the U.S. security think tank Stratfor.
“Should Boko Haram acquire additional explosives or other weapons, through theft at police stations it attacks or in exchanges with AQIM or al-Shabaab, Boko Haram can be expected to be more lethal in any future attacks against the Nigerian state or foreign installations or personnel seen as supporting the Nigerian state.”
But Boko Haram doesn’t target Christians exclusively; it has also killed influential Muslim politicians who opposed them.
The poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and neglect in the north have to be seen as key motivating factors in the growing menace Boko Haram presents.
In that light, the bombing of the U.N. building could be viewed as a means of drawing attention to the plight of Nigerians in the north.
The crackdown by Nigeria’s heavy-handed security forces in the north has aggravated the problem in a country where Islam is overwhelmingly moderate by driving young men into Boko Haram’s arms.