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Al-Qaida Arm In Yemen Flexes Its Muscles In Nigeria

Jul 12, 2012
Originally published on July 12, 2012 12:25 pm

An unusual terrorism case started in Nigeria late last week. Prosecutors in the capital city of Abuja accused two local men of being members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. They were charged with accepting thousands of dollars from the group to recruit potential terrorists inside Nigeria and then send them to Yemen. Olaniyi Lawal, 31, and Luqman Babatunde, 30, have pleaded not guilty.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have been watching the case unfold with alarm because it suggests that al-Qaida's most aggressive affiliate, a group that has targeted the U.S. on numerous occasions, is seeking to boost its presence in Africa.

The Next Battlefront?

"For them to have reached into a country as far from Yemen as Nigeria is highly unusual and it is indicative of its new strategy in Africa," says Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at Kings College London. "Al-Qaida's leaders have, for some time, been on the lookout for a new hot battlefront where they can implant themselves."

He says for a time that battlefield was Somalia. And Yemen.

"And of course, Nigeria is something that has popped out of nowhere, really," Neumann says, "and they are trying to capitalize on that, trying to turn this into a conflict essentially that is part of the global jihad."

In other words, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is trying to join forces with local Islamists so it can add to the ranks of its war against the West.

Nigeria has been in the throes of a violent Islamist insurgency for more than two years. An Islamist group called Boko Haram — which literally means "Western education is forbidden" — has been trying to trigger a civil war in Nigeria. The conflict pits the Muslim population, which largely lives in the north, against the Christian population in the south. The ultimate goal, as the group sees it, is to build an independent state in northern Nigeria and turn it into a Muslim caliphate.

Al-Qaida's 'Global Ambitions'

Sam Rascoff, who teaches law and national security at New York University, says AQAP has always thought big.

"Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula doesn't confine its recruitment to Yemen and certainly doesn't confine its operational vision to the Arabian Peninsula," he says. "They're an organization with an increasingly global recruitment platform and global ambitions for where they are going to strike, and they see Nigeria as one of the places that will help them get there."

Al-Qaida's core leadership has had its eyes on Nigeria for years. Osama bin Laden himself had singled out Nigeria as fertile ground for terrorist recruitment back in 2003. In fact, U.S. officials found correspondence between bin Laden and leaders of Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgent group in the compound where bin Laden was killed.

AQAP's breakout terrorist attack against the West happened in 2009, when it sent a young Nigerian man on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with explosives in his underwear. The bomb misfired, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.

Local Presence

This new case in Abuja's high court may be just the latest indication of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's focus on Nigeria. U.S. military officials say AQAP may have some competition, however, from another al-Qaida arm, this one based in Africa itself. It's known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

The general in charge of U.S. military operations in Africa talked about the group just last month during a speech to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

"We're increasingly concerned about al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb," Carter Ham said. "Most notably, I would say the linkages between al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are most likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials."

Neumann, the London terrorism expert, says that could be dangerous not just for Nigeria, but for the West as well.

"So far, really, it is a local, Nigerian conflict," he says. "But the influence of al-Qaida could turn this into a sort of global confrontation between the West and Islam as they see it."

Al-Qaida has done this before. It offers money and training and recruits to local groups, and in exchange, those groups swear allegiance and join the fight against the West. Counterterrorism officials are monitoring whether al-Qaida will be able to reprise that scenario in Nigeria.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nigeria is facing an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency. For several years, an Islamist group called Boko Haram has been trying to trigger a civil war in Nigeria. Its name means Western education is forbidden. Now there are new indications that Boko Haram is joining forces with affiliates of al-Qaida. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: An unusual terrorism case opened in Nigeria last week. Prosecutors there charged two local men with being members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That group is based in Yemen. The two men have pleaded not guilty. But their alleged crime: that they received thousands of dollars from al-Qaida to recruit potential terrorists in Nigeria and then send them to Yemen.

PETER NEUMANN: For them to have reached into a country as far from Yemen as Nigeria is highly unusual.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann is a professor of Security Studies at Kings College London. And he says leaders of al-Qaida have been following the situation in Nigeria very carefully.

NEUMANN: They've, for some time, been on the lookout for a new hot battlefront where they can implant themselves. And for a while, that was Somalia, for a while that was Yemen. And, of course, Nigeria is something that has popped out of nowhere, really, and they are trying to capitalize on that, trying to turn this into a conflict, essentially, that is part of the global jihad.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So conflict in Nigeria provides a new opportunity for al-Qaida. And Sam Rascoff, who teaches Law and Security at New York University, says this is no surprise. AQAP, more than any other al-Qaida affiliate, has always thought big.

SAM RASOFF: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula doesn't confine its recruitment to Yemen and certainly doesn't confine its operational vision to the Arabian Peninsula. They're an organization with an increasingly global recruitment platform and global ambitions for where they are going to strike.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida's leaders have had an eye on Nigeria for years. Osama bin Laden himself singled out Nigeria as fertile ground for terrorist recruitment back in 2003. U.S. officials found correspondence between bin Laden and leaders of Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgent group, in the compound where bin Laden was killed.

And of course, the famous Underwear Bomber of 2009 was a Nigerian man.

This new court case may be the latest indication that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sees Nigeria as good ground for recruiting - though the group may have some competition from another al-Qaida arm, this one in Africa.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: We're increasingly concerned about al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Carter Ham in a speech last month, talking about al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa. General Ham is in charge of U.S. military operations in Africa.

HAM: Most notably I would say the linkages between al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome, in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training, and explosive materials which can be quite dangerous.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So there are two different terrorist connections to Nigeria, one from the al-Qaida group in North Africa and now one from the al-Qaida group in Yemen. London terrorism expert Peter Neumann says that could be dangerous, not just for Nigeria, but potentially for the West as well.

NEUMANN: So far, really it is a local Nigerian conflict. The influence of al-Qaida could turn this into a sort of global confrontation between the West and Islam, as they see it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida has done this before. It offers money and training and recruits to local groups. And in exchange, those groups swear allegiance and join the fight against the West. Counter-terrorism officials are monitoring whether al-Qaida will be able to reprise that scenario in Nigeria.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.