A radical Muslim sect responsible for assassinations and bombings across northern Nigeria may be trying to link with two al-Qaida-linked groups in other African countries to mount joint attacks in this oil-rich nation, the commander for U.S. military operations in Africa said Wednesday.
Gen. Carter Ham told The Associated Press that "multiple sources" indicate the Nigerian sect known as Boko Haram made contacts with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in northwest Africa, and with al-Shabab in Somalia.
"I think it would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well," Carter said.
Ham said there is no specific intelligence suggesting the groups plan attacks against U.S. or Western interests in Nigeria, but the nation is a major supplier of crude oil to the U.S. and is an economic hub drawing foreigners from across the world.
Ham's comments were the strongest official remarks on fears privately held by Western and Nigerian officials. However, it remains unclear what formal links, if any, exist between Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab. The three organizations have different ethnic roots and their objectives are not the same, but they are all Islamist militant groups.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, came to prominence in 2009 when sect members attacked local police stations and government buildings throughout northeast Nigeria. The riots and ensuing security crackdown left 700 people dead.
Last year, the group began assassinating clerics and police officers. It also has engineered spectacular attacks, including the June bombing of Nigeria's federal police headquarters, the assassination of a prominent politician and a prison break that freed more than 700 inmates.
Boko Haram seeks the implementation of strict Shariah Islamic law in the country. Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is largely split between a Christian south and Muslim north, where 12 states have a version of Shariah in place.
Ham said it appears Boko Haram may be splitting with one section focused on domestic issues and another on violent international extremism.
"What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts," the general said. "I'm not so sure they're able to do that just yet, but it's clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that."
Ham said that a "loose" partnership also would include al-Shabab. A suspected al-Shabab bombmaker now facing terrorism charges in New York was at one point detained by secret police in Nigeria. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, has issued statements in support of Boko Haram, and both use similar logos in communiques.
A recent video indicates that two men, a Briton and an Italian who were kidnapped in northwestern Nigeria, are being held by AQIM.
Ham met this week with Nigerian military and security officials during his first visit to the country as the head of the U.S. Africa Command, known as Africom and which is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. Ham said the U.S. would be willing to share intelligence and offer training to Nigerian security forces.
"We have a lot of folks who are pretty good about taking multiple pieces of apparently disparate information and putting that in a way that can be useful to operational commanders in a very short period of time," the general said.
That assistance also could be used in Nigeria's south, if the country requests it, Ham said. There, criminal and militant gangs kidnap oil workers and middle-class Nigerians, while pirates attack vessels off the coast.
Africa Command: http://www.africom.mil/
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP