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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.

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Concerns about Al Qaeda links

Days after the UN attack, Nigerian security services linked Boko Haram with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from Somalia, as well as Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group responsible for terrorist activity in northern Africa. This link immediately drew the attention of the United States, which pledged to help Nigeria track Boko Haram’s finances. British High Commissioner in Nigeria Andrew Lloyd also promised to share intelligence and offered technological support.

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Mr. Sani, who has facilitated talks between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, says the Al Qaeda connection is dubious, but helpful in drawing US and British attention to the problem. He blamed the heavy-handed approach by Mr. Jonathan’s security forces in Jos and other areas of the north for the escalation in violence.

“In Jonathan’s opinion, the government’s best option is to continue to confront the militants,” Sani says. “Associating them with Al Qaeda is an easy excuse, but these confrontations have been happening for years and lives have continually been lost. The use of force has not been able to address the problem.”

In recent weeks, Sani has attempted to quell the conflict by arranging a meeting between former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and family members of slain Boko Haram leader Yusuf.

The talks fell apart. Sani, fearful for his life, is now in hiding.

Problem spreading south

Boko Haram’s activities have been contained to Nigeria’s north. But unconfirmed reports Wednesday indicated that Boko Haram members had arrived in Warri state in the Niger Delta with intentions of bombing oil facilities. If the group manages to disrupt Nigeria’s oil output, the impact would be felt globally.

Their arrival would also signal the start of a dangerous new phase of the conflict.

The Niger Delta has been relatively violence-free since Christian militants there, who for years waged a guerilla war against oil companies in the region, were granted amnesty in 2009. But these militants are increasingly concerned about Boko Haram, and are mobilizing to confront them both in the Niger Delta and in the north, according to a source close to the militants. If this were to occur, this conflict could escalate to a holy war of sorts for the future of Nigeria.

“This problem has been contained to the north,” Sani says, “but it is one that is hydra-headed. Incursions in the south would be disastrous.”

--- David Francis reported from Nigeria on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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