It is now widely accepted that Boko Haram, an Islamic sect based in northeastern Nigeria, was responsible for the recent bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, in which 23 people died and dozens were wounded. And perhaps more ominously, Boko Haram's reach and ambitions are now said to extend beyond Nigeria.
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Thus on a visit to Abuja, only days before the bombing, Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), told the Associated Press that multiple sources had indicated that there were links between Boko Haram and Al Qaeda or its franchises, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Al Shabaab in Somalia. He also said that cooperation between Boko Haram and al Qaeda "would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well."
The UN bombing seemed to confirm the assumption of Al Qaeda involvement, and no one is publicly asking whether there is any other possible explanation. The operation, said some Nigerians and Americans, was too sophisticated and the explosion too powerful for a rag-tag Boko Haram to have carried it out alone. Further, Boko Haram allegedly has claimed responsibility for the attack in cell phone calls. And if Al Qaeda affiliates were involved, it is reasonable to expect the U.S. military to become engaged more forcefully in Nigerian security matters.
But knowledgeable Nigerians who live in the part of the country where Boko Haram has been active are skeptical. Boko Haram's goals and previous targets have been exclusively Nigerian: army barracks and police stations - especially since the extrajudicial killing in 2009 of their only known leader, Mohammed Yusuf - certain northeastern politicians and their supporters, and alcohol-dispensing small restaurants and bars deemed un-Islamic. The key question remains unanswered: Why would it now attack the UN?
In fact, there is an alternative, plausible explanation of the bombing: It was a reprisal for Nigerian foreign policy, and it was ordered by a spiteful Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi. He has a history of meddling in West Africa, often with bloody results, notably in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also in Chad and, lately, in Niger and Mali. In all of these places, he has worked against Nigeria's policies and interests, attempting to undermine its regional influence.
Then, last year, he said that Nigeria should be divided in two, along religious lines, with Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. The Nigerian Foreign Ministry responded by recalling its ambassador to Libya, while the Nigerian National Assembly accused Libya of supplying "infiltrators" to destabilize Nigeria.
And indeed, Gaddafi is known to have agents in Nigeria and in other West African countries.
More recently, Nigeria, as a member of the UN Security Council, voted in favor of its resolutions on Libya. Nigeria was also the first major African country to recognize Libya's Transitional National Government; and it did so ahead of a key meeting in which the African Union, long a beneficiary of Gaddafi funding, was to discuss the Libyan issue.
Also, there were rumors that Gaddafi demanded support from the Nigerian government while the rebels were closing in on Tripoli but was rebuffed. In any event, the mercurial Gaddafi had a grievance against both Nigeria and the United Nations, and the capability for retaliation.
Nonetheless the Nigerian government is pressing its public case against Boko Haram, although not necessarily persuasively, and sometimes with an element of farce. Security officials released the photographs of two men, hitherto unknown, who supposedly "masterminded" the bombing, but the pictures showed a rural setting and both men appeared to be double amputees. Nigerian officials say "300 of 500 Boko Haram members" have been arrested, although no official has put a face to, or otherwise identified, anyone in the leadership of Boko Haram.
The officials also note that Boko Haram, in two phone calls, claimed credit for the bombing. One caller, however, declined to identify himself. The other said he was a spokesman for the Boko Haram spokesman. But numerous Nigerians point out that anyone with a cell phone could have made the calls, and there are many millions of cell phones in the country. True, no one else has made a claim, but historically people who set off bombs have not always done so.
There has also been media speculation, fueled by government suggestions, that at various times members of Boko Haram have received training in Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Mali, Yemen and even Afghanistan. But Boko Haram has at most only a few hundred hard-core members (though sympathizers, brought along by the brutality of the security forces, may add a few thousand), and they are known by those who live among them to be largely unemployed and impoverished. Few seem to be equipped for such traveling abroad.
Nor do sophisticated, powerful, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have to come through an al Qaeda connection. Nigeria's first major explosion on such a scale came in July 2009, when the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), blew up the Atlas Cove jetty, an oil-storage and loading facility in Lagos, the commercial capital.
The United States should suspend judgment, just as the UN has, on who is responsible for the Abuja bombing until investigations are complete. Boko Haram may indeed have carried it out, with or without outside assistance, but we do not yet know that with certainty. Meanwhile, the United States should exercise caution in making new policy decisions, especially to assist a government and security forces in whose competence and integrity few Nigerians - not only in the Muslim north - have any faith.
All parts of Nigeria continue to see ongoing, escalating violence. Sometimes it comes in the form of attacks and explosions; sometimes, kidnapping for ransom; sometimes, armed robbery of individuals or banks; sometimes, as in Jos, political and economic grievances that have turned into an extremely vicious circle of ethno-religious murder and revenge.
Nigerians everywhere have lost confidence in their government's ability to protect them. That their president now has added Israeli personal security, and the inspector-general of police is raising the electrified walls of his Abuja residence to illegal heights only fuels their resentment.
The United States is already viewed in Nigeria as having favored Goodluck Jonathan, the Christian president from the Niger Delta, in last April's election. The election may have been acclaimed by the international community, but it was disputed in Nigeria's north, and it raised tensions in much of the country.
Should Africom initiatives - especially in counterterrorism training - identify the United States more closely with Nigeria's current government and its security agencies, there could be a consequence that neither Americans nor most Nigerians would welcome: America would be seen as an enemy, opening the way to exactly the Al Qaeda presence they least want.
Jean Herskovits, research professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, has been visiting Nigeria for four decades.