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Who was behind the bombing in Nigeria?

By Tolu Ogunlesi, special to CNN
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U.N.: Nigeria death toll 'considerable'
  • A car bomb at the United Nations compound, in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killed at least 18 people
  • It is the latest in a series of bomb explosions that have hit the city
  • Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, has been claiming responsibility
  • The attacks may provide evidence of the growing internationalisation of terrorism

Tolu Ogunlesi is a Features Editor with Next, a daily newspaper in Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- On Friday a car bomb exploded at the United Nations compound, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 18 people and injuring several others. It is the latest, and most ambitious in a series of bomb explosions that have hit the city in the last year.

The last one, in June, targeted the police headquarters in Abuja, killing two people.

Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group (sometimes referred to as "the Nigerian Taliban") has been claiming responsibility for these bombings. "Boko Haram" translates loosely as "Western education is forbidden/sinful."

The group holds all government authority in contempt and wants to establish a Sharia state in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram has been in existence for several years, proselytising, and running a mosque and religious school, but did not rise to national prominence until it attacked police stations and prisons in parts of Northern Nigeria in July, 2009.

In retaliation, Nigerian security forces launched a ruthless crackdown. Hundreds of people were killed; the Boko Haram camp destroyed, and its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, arrested. He would later die in police custody, and a number of officers are currently facing trial. (Some of the group's anger is traceable to what it claims is the highhandedness of the Nigerian police and military).

The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is typically cast by the international media as evidence of tensions between Nigeria's "predominantly Christian South" and its "predominantly Muslim North." There have also been suggestions that the Muslim North is unhappy that a Southern Christian is president, at a time when, according to the terms of an informal North-South power-rotating pact in the ruling party, a Northerner ought to be president; and that Boko Haram's activities are a manifestation of that unhappiness.

U.N. Secy.-Gen. condemns Nigeria attack
U.N. office in Nigeria bombed
  • Abuja
  • Nigeria

At best this is an oversimplification of issues, and at worst dangerously misleading. The Boko Haram violence cannot sensibly be narrowed into a North versus South crisis. When it flared up in 2009, the late Umar Yar'Adua, a Northern Muslim, was president. A similar crisis erupted in Kano State, involving a sect known as 'Maitatsine' ("one who curses,") in December 1980, when Shehu Shagari, also a Northern Muslim, was in power.

Religion certainly plays a huge role in the crisis, as it does in everyday Nigerian life. But reducing extremist Islamic sects to "anti-Christian" movements hardly aids a better understanding of the issue.

In their choice of enemies and targets, extremist Islamic sects will generally not discriminate between non-Muslims and moderate Muslims (the category to which one may safely say the majority of Nigeria's Muslims belong.) Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the assassinations of a number of influential Muslim politicians in Northern Nigeria. At least two Northern Muslim Governors have, under threat of attack, apologized to the group.

The role of social factors -- poverty and illiteracy -- cannot also be ignored. There are millions of economically-deprived youth in Northern Nigeria for whom the only education available, and encouraged, is an itinerant Islamic one. They are a ready army for purveyors of radical teachings.

Finally, the attacks in Nigeria may provide evidence of the growing internationalisation of terrorism. The U.N. office bombing certainly suggests an "upgrade" of Boko Haram's operational strategy, and raises questions about foreign influences. Much has indeed been speculated about whether al Qaeda -- which has a North African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), active in parts of West Africa -- has infiltrated Nigeria. (al Qaeda has previously been implicated in bombings of U.N. offices in Algiers and Baghdad.)

Until recently, those speculations were largely dismissed, not because they were far-fetched, but because they did not appear to be supported by any concrete evidence.

Those concerns are, however, no longer dismissed with the same aplomb. In June, Noman Benotman (once closely linked with the senior membership of al Qaeda, but now a terrorism analyst and expert on de-radicalisation), told the audience at a Thomson Reuters Foundation seminar on global security in London that, while Boko Haram is not structurally connected to al Qaeda, "without a doubt," some form of contact exists between the two groups.

Only last week the New York Times reported that Boko Haram "appears to be branching out and collaborating with al Qaeda's affiliates, alarming Western officials and analysts who had previously viewed the militants here as a largely isolated, if deadly, menace."

In a recent article on Boko Haram I suggested that "it is only a matter of time before a mutually beneficial alliance is worked out -- the brand equity and organizational efficiency of al Qaeda combining with the local experience and recruiting prowess of Boko Haram."

It would be a win-win scenario for both groups.

But then again, there is always the possibility that this bombing of the United Nations compound had nothing to do with Boko Haram or with al Qaeda. Anyone seeking to discredit the Nigerian government, for whatever reason, could be behind it. They would be only too happy to allow Boko Haram claim responsibility.

The fact that the Nigerian government consistently appears helpless and uncoordinated in its anti-terrorism response means that the terrorists -- and there might be more than one group lurking in the shadows -- are likely to grow more confident in how and what they choose to attack.