LAGOS – Mali’s struggle against Islamists being targeted by French and African forces has raised fresh questions over an insurgency in nearby Nigeria and ties between extremists in both countries.
Nigeria plans to send some 900 troops to Mali as well as command the African force being deployed to the country, despite also dealing with violence at home by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram.
While the Islamist advance in Mali has sparked fears that it could become a haven for al-Qaida-linked militants and criminal gangs, many observers caution that Nigeria’s situation is vastly different. Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer has battled Boko Haram in its current form since 2010, but little is known about the group and its stated aims have repeatedly shifted.
The Nigerian insurgents are seen as having a domestic focus, targeting symbols of authority and Christians with bombings and shootings. They have not seized territory in the way Islamist militants have in Mali, taking over the north of that country in the chaos following a coup last March.
The Mali extremists ceded no ground Thursday as French special forces inched closer to a rebel-held town, fighting erupted in another center and army troops raced to protect a third. At emergency talks on the crisis, France won support from EU nations for its military campaign in Mali and offers of military aid, possibly including troops.
Boko Haram is thought to include various factions in addition to imitators and criminal gangs that carry out violence under the guise of the group. There have also long been suspicions that certain elements of the group have political links.
However, Boko Haram’s threat has been evolving and the leader of its presumed main faction, Abubakar Shekau, has recently expressed sympathy with global jihadist groups. There are also claims that one or more splinter groups have carried out kidnappings of foreigners from France, Italy, Britain and Germany in northern Nigeria, a tactic regularly used by al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Concerns have been raised about signs of growing links between African extremist groups.
“We have seen clear indications of collaboration amongst the organizations,” Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said recently. “In one instance . . . we believe and have seen reports that Boko Haram is receiving financial support, probably training, probably some explosives, from (AQIM), and in a relationship that goes both ways.”
What level of cooperation may or may not exist has been intensely debated, and a number of analysts say there are simply no clear answers.
Some Boko Haram members are believed to have previously gone to northern Mali to train with AQIM, but it is not clear if closer ties have developed. There have also been claims of Boko Haram fighters in Mali in recent months, but whether they are indeed Boko Haram members is difficult to determine.
With the Mali crisis intensifying, some now worry that if claims of Boko Haram members fighting in its rebellion are true, it could lead to further bad news for Nigeria. “Once they go back to Nigeria, they could bring with them this new viewpoint,” said Comolli.