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Is Nigeria's Boko Haram group really tied to Al Qaeda?

A string of increasingly brutal attacks – along with reports that Boko Haram may soon hit Nigeria's predominately Christian South – is bringing fresh scrutiny of the Islamist group.

By David FrancisCorrespondent / September 22, 2011

Nigerian authorities escort media through the village of Hayin-Uku near Abuja where they say a two-room bomb-making factory was found September 6. Authorities said they had arrested six suspected members or people connected with the violent Islamist sect Boko Haram, including a foreign fighter from Niger. Authorities are investigating the bombing of the U.N. headquarters on August 26 that killed 23 people in the Nigerian capital.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

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Abuja, Nigeria

Earlier this week, lawmakers, aides, and journalists in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja rushed into the streets after word spread that a bomb was planted in the National Assembly. Frantic calls to loved ones with reassurances of safety could be heard while police scrambled to find the explosive.

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It turned out to be a false alarm. But Tuesday’s panic was indicative of the fear that has gripped Abuja since Aug. 26. On that day, Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group based in Nigeria’s north, detonated a bomb at the fortified United Nations headquarters, killing 23 people and injuring 76. The bomb, which gutted the entire first floor of the building, was carried in an SUV driven by a suicide bomber and member of the terrorist group. It was one of the worst attacks ever on a UN installation.

The bombing represents a dramatic escalation in violence by Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates to “western education is a sin.” Previously, the group targeted more vulnerable objectives in Nigeria’s north and the country’s Middle Belt, the area separating the Christian south from the Muslim north. Since the UN bombing, the group has expanded its scope, threatening to bomb Nigerian universities and international targets, as well as issuing threats to politicians and journalists.

“There is going to be a continued campaign of violence and terrorism,” says Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria. “I expect more violence very soon.”

A violent history in Nigeria

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 when a radical preacher named Mohammed Yusuf began teaching unemployed and disaffected youth in the northeast state of Borno, one of the poorest regions of the country. Mr. Yusuf formed a fundamentalist school there, which attracted Muslim children from across northern Nigeria.

The group was known for its strict adherence to Islamic law, as well as the violence its members waged against those who opposed it. Boko Haram operated freely, committing violent acts across then north until Nigerian national security forces began to investigate them in 2009. In the course of the investigation, Yusuf was arrested. He died mysteriously while in police custody. His death led to clashes between police and the terrorist group that resulted in the deaths of some 700 Boko Haram members.

After Yusuf’s death, the group broadened its mission to impose Islamic law not just in the north but also throughout Nigeria. It began a campaign of strategic violence, including political assassinations, attacks on police and federal security installations, and a series of bombings.

In the past year, the city of Jos in Plateau State, east of Abuja, has emerged as the frontline of the battle between the Boko Haram and Christian militants. Firefights occur daily. According to unofficial reports, hundreds of people have died there in the past year.

After the UN bombing, President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the Nigerian Air Force and Army into Jos. Casualties are expected to increase with the arrival of the military.

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