LONDON (Reuters) - With a YouTube video reminiscent of the broadcasts of Osama bin Laden, Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram seems keen to paint itself as part of a wider global jihad. But in reality, their concerns and focus look to remain almost entirely Nigerian.
Whilst recent high-profile attacks including the bombing of a United Nations compound in August resembled Islamist attacks long common elsewhere, analysts say there remain few proven links to similar militants elsewhere.
Instead, it is seen much more focused on domestic issues -- part of a wider swelling of discontent against the current mainly southern and Christian leadership. But there is little doubt it is growing in both power and momentum.
The group, whose name means “Western education is sinful” in the northern Hausa language, is blamed for almost daily killings that have escalated from small-scale shootings to increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Last year, the sect carried out a suicide car bombing of the UN headquarters in the capital Abuja, killing 24. On Christmas Day, coordinated explosions targeted Christians with 37 killed in a single church, again near Abuja.
Security analysts say the group remains disparate and quite possibly divided. But with wider unrest simmering and the country increasingly being brought to a standstill by strikes over government attempts to abolish fuel subsidies, they could prove at the very least a mounting irritant.
Late on Wednesday, Boko Haram posted a 15 minute video of leader Abubakar Shekau on YouTube late wearing a camouflage bullet-proof jacket and sitting in front of two AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles. He said recent killings of Christians were justifiable revenge killings and taunted President Goodluck Jonathan.
“All this video tells you it’s the views of at least one element within the Boko Haram movement,” says John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and now senior fellow for African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “But it is important because it fits into the wider picture people have about the government -- that it is not working.”
Senior Nigerian officials have long been keen to talk up any potential links to Al Qaeda. Nigeria’s national security adviser Owoye Andrew Azazi wrote in the Washington Times this month the group was a “common enemy” of the US, asking for technical and intelligence assistance although not direct military support.
“Like other Islamist extremists, Boko Haram sees itself fulfilling part of a global mission,” he wrote. “It is striving to spark a religious war the way racist extremists in the past have tried to provoke race wars.”
But many others are much more cautious.
“Boko Haram is a local organization concerned about local issues in spite of the claims especially by the government about links with Al Qaeda,” said one veteran Nigerian journalist. “There is also suspicion that there may be more than one Boko Haram because attacks on Christians does not fit with the known targets of Boko Haram... security personnel and other symbols of authority.”
The video might have looked right from the Al Qaeda playbook, but experts say its content was another matter altogether. Shekau spoke entirely in Hausa and there were no Al Qaeda related logos, Arabic subtitles or other Arabic material.
It was also posted direct to YouTube -- popular with Nigerians, much less so with Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic radicals in the Maghreb or Arabian Peninsula.
“(It) was not posted in the main Arabic language jihadist forums, suggesting there is no established telecommunication with the usual distributors of Al Qaeda propaganda,” Anna Boyd and Natznet Tesfay, head of global jihad forecasting and the Africa desk respectively at consultancy Exclusive Analysis.
That contrasted with an earlier message from the group issued last year for the Eid Holliday, which was issued through the al-Andalus media wing of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There appeared to be no involvement of al-Andalus in the YouTube release.
Perhaps even more importantly, its content appeared to be almost entirely Nigerian in nature, with little reference to wider global themes such as war in Iraq or Afghanistan. As well as talking of recent attacks, Shekau also again accused the Nigerian state of complicity in the death in 2009 in custody of the sect’s former leader Mohamed Yusuf, detained following bloody ethnic and religious riots in 2009.
“Their concerns are much more domestic,” said Alex Vines, senior fellow and Africa specialist at London think tank Chatham House. “Boko Haram is far from the most important thing happening in Nigeria, but it is important in that it points to larger themes -- the creeping risk of state failure and the disappointments with the Jonathan presidency. Most of its causes are distinctly Nigerian, whether it is political rivalry or local ethnic politics.”
Nigeria’s presidency traditionally alternates between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south, but Jonathan bucked the trend by taking the role several years after the death of previous incumbent Umaru Musa Yar‘adua.
Critics say that has coincided with a wider power shift in favour of the South, which traditionally dominated the economy whilst northerners largely controlled the powerful military.
But Boko Haram have clearly learned one thing from Al Qaeda, either directly or indirectly -- the importance of spectacle.
“They have some serious problems with the consistency of their messaging,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly. “The videos YouTube release may have attracted more attention, but the group has gained a far higher profile over the last year with all the bombings and the threat of instigating sectarian violence.”
For many analysts, it is the mounting death toll itself -- and the growing sophistication of attacks -- that provides the most convincing argument that Nigeria’s Islamists may have linked up directly with others outside the country.
“Boko Haram’s growing capacity -- both geographically and in terms of sophisticated weaponry -- may indicate that it is receiving support from wider terrorist networks in the region,” says Hannah Waddilove, Africa analyst for security firm AKE.
“The use of high-powered explosives, for example, is a departure from the traditional method of drive-by shootings and assassinations.”
Having successfully carried out a suicide car bombing with the UN attack in August, analysts say the next step could be a larger truck bomb or series of simultaneous attacks.
But the necessary expertise -- and perhaps a wider jihadi agenda -- is seen likely held by relatively few members of the wider group, which itself is estimated to have perhaps no more than a few hundred members.
“It is likely that a small faction -- the unit responsible for the UN attack -- has received ”skills transfers“ at the ideological direction from regional terrorist groups,” said Ashley Elliott, analyst for consultancy Control Risks. “But the bulk of the militants are more local in grievances and objectives.”
While some analysts see the hand of North African, Arab or Somali expertise, others see something much closer to home. Earlier this month, Jonathan himself said he believed the group had a number of sympathizers within his own government and military.
“When Boko Haram was in its infancy as a group it tended to reference al-Qaeda more often,” say Boyd and Tesfay at Exclusive Analysis. “However, as it has grown stronger domestically it likely feels less need to reach out to al-Qaeda for help. In our view Boko Haram’s increase in capability to attack strategic foreign targets in major cities, such as the federal capital Abuja, is more easily attributable to support from members of the security forces than to help from Al Qaeda.”
Even if the link were to exist, former US ambassador Campbell says it would only make a limited difference -- almost certainly not enough to prompt Boko Haram to turn its attention anywhere outside Nigeria’s borders.
“Even if they were moving towards becoming part of Al Qaeda’s franchise, what would that mean?” he says. “The whole point of Al Qaeda is that they are anti-Western -- they wanted to blow up the London Underground, for example. Boko Haram is nothing like that.”
Reporting By Peter Apps