Two days ago al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed the August 27th bombing at Algeria’s Cherchell military academy, the “most important symbol of the Algerian regime” according to spokesman Salah Abou Mohamed. Today Nigeria’s State Security Service released multiple sources of information linking AQIM to the August 26th bombing on the UN’s headquarters in Abuja. Carried about by the anti-Christian group Boko Haram, the attack left 23 people dead and 80 injured - and launched Boko on the global map.
A bubbling debate over groups’ interactivity had reached a boil just as a suicide bomber rammed through two security gates and brought down part of the building.
Although Boko was beginning to move its suicide bombings from local to high-profile targets, even releasing a public kill list, the UN attack represents a dramatic escalation in its war against the Nigerian state. More than the attack itself, seemingly styled after al-Qaeda’s tactics, the selection of an international target and timing of Cherchell’s bombing added weight to U.S. and Nigerian claims that the groups are moving towards enhanced cooperation.
Now Nigeria’s secret police has arrested two members of Boko suspected of involvement in the Abuja bombing. A third suspect, Mamman Nur, was named as the mastermind and linked to al-Qaeda, having recently returned from Somalia; his exact affiliation has yet to be clarified. State Security also showed The Wall Street Journal a June intelligence report documenting Boko’s international outreach. This report postulates a connection to AQIM in 2002, when AQIM was still known as the Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) and Boko was just beginning to coalesce. In 2007, an unnamed man "led a group of members to Afghanistan for training on IEDs and on their return they imparted their knowledge to others,” according to a Nigerian undercover official.
"Within the last year, they've established more contacts and training opportunities with AQIM," says an anonymous U.S. official, who dates a hard connection to 2009. "What we're seeing now is probably the result of the additional radicalization of their viewpoints and the training."
Regardless of their total veracity, these developments signify a grave danger across northern Africa. One on level, al-Qaeda’s local branches are looking to establish themselves internationally while also hunting for new recruits to grow the global brand. Skepticism is a necessary component of examining al-Qaeda’s activities, however the connection between AQIM and Boko appears to be coming into clearer view. Even limited interaction could draw Nigeria into the Sahel’s wider battlefield, intensifying AQIM’s war against north African states and Boko’s internal “jihad.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Washington is also looking for new opportunities to expand post-OBL. al-Qaeda “2.0,” as the group is now known inside the Pentagon and CIA, is fanning itself as much as U.S. officials are shaping its narrative. Elements within Washington’s establishment want al-Qaeda 2.0 to branch and connect, want the splinters to coordinate, so that one giant security net can be cast from Mauritania to Somalia. After the Algerian bombing, State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reaffirmed America’s, “strong bilateral relationship, and this tragedy highlights the need to continue to bolster our joint efforts as partners to fight terrorism in all its forms.”
The Algerian government also managed to beat off domestic attempts to mimic the Arab Spring. Having lifted a 19-year state of emergency to appease the masses, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika relied on a heavy police presence to quell the remaining dissent. The government is suspected of using AQIM as domestic political cover (similar to Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh) and to further its regional hegemony. Libya’s revolutionaries currently distinguish between Algeria’s “peace-loving people” and the regime, condemning the latter for harboring members of Gaddafi’s family and aiding his regime.
Labeled an “act of aggression” by Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), a source within Algeria’s Interior Ministry admitted, "A top priority will be the protection of the Gaddafi family, especially as Libyan rebels may try and pursue them here. For this reason they are in a top security area of Algiers." AQIM has tied its attacks into this support, further complicating Algeria’s regional influence.
The same renewed assistance was also offered to Nigeria’s government. AFRICOM chief Carter Ham mused on the possibility of extensive security cooperation before Boko struck the UN building, and vague statements of support have been issued in Ajuba’s aftermath. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, declared, “Vicious terrorist attacks such as these only strengthen our resolve and commitment to the work of the United Nations and the people of Nigeria.”
Such a policy may seem natural given Nigeria’s political and economic ties with America, but feeds into a wider regional militarization pursued by all sides. This blanket strategy might also confuse national with regional solutions; although Mauritania, Nigeria and Somalia all suffer from poverty and government mismanagement, each requires a local solution based on the environment’s nuances. U.S. policy has crisscrossed local and international groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, a policy with lingering consequences. Merging the response to AQIM, Boko, Somalia’s AQ cadre and Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) will likely produce strategic errors.
Nigeria also represents enormous opportunity and risk in Washington’s ongoing war against “al-Qaeda 2.0.” Sharing traits with Pakistan - 150+ million people, high levels of poverty and unemployment, rampant government corruption (within the civilian and security branches), heavy-handed security forces, extensive arms trafficking and ethnic/religious fault-lines - Nigeria offers another opaque battlefield to manipulate. The obvious juxtaposition is Nigeria’s high approval for America, 80% to Pakistan’s 10%, but many issues can and eventually will go wrong as U.S. operations escalate inside the complex country.
What’s most frightening isn’t al-Qaeda’s intention to expand, but a synchronization with Washington’s need for a long war. The emerging question is whether al-Qaeda will continue to spread internationally, or whether Africa becomes the next central battleground against America and its allies.