Boko Haram's car bombs signal new escalation of terror in Nigeria

The blasts came after Paris meeting on the extremist Muslim group. At home in Nigeria, few are certain about how to engage Boko Haram.

Smoke rises after a bomb blast at the market district in Jos May 20, 2014. The two giant deadly blasts by Boko Haram Tuesday in the city of Jos come on the heels of an international conference in Paris convened by the French on Boko Haram, amid increasing frustration inside and outside Nigeria.

Two giant deadly blasts assumed to be by Boko Haram in the city of Jos killed at least 118 people Tuesday and point to a relatively new terror technique by the insurgent group – the use of car bombs in a deadly sequence.

Tuesday’s target of Jos, located in the center of Nigeria, is much closer to the capital, Abuja, than many previous Boko Haram operations. Last month’s kidnapping of more than 200 girls, for instance, took place in the Muslim-majority northeast. 

Together, these developments may well signal that Boko Haram is moving its terror closer to Nigeria’s seat of government, and in a more significantly disruptive way. The group has survived a year-long air and ground assault since emergency rule was imposed on three northeastern states, including Borno, its birthplace and stronghold. 

Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility for the blasts though officials are treating it as an attack engineered by them. 

In the past, Boko Haram has typically employed small bombs or munitions, often thrown from a motor scooter. But the use of munitions-packed car bombs that create a greater blast, and doing so in a sequence designed to harm the first-responders, is an intensification for the extremist group.

President Goodluck Jonathan, already pressured by the international community over the government’s inability to find the kidnapped girls, said Tuesday that, "The government remains fully committed to winning the war against terror, and this administration will not be cowed by the atrocities of enemies of human progress and civilization."

The blasts come on the heels of an international conference in Paris convened by the French on Boko Haram, amid increasing frustration inside and outside Nigeria.

Mr. Jonathan agreed in Paris to coordinate with regional African and Western nations. Yet many in Nigeria say his government's contradictions on key issues symbolize an overall failure. 

Boko Haram took the girls from a school in Chibok in the northeast in mid-April, and then in early May offered to exchange them for prisoners.

Yet it remains unclear what Nigeria’s actual position on negotiations is, with different agencies contradicting each other and with internal clashes over whether Boko Haram’s leader, Abubaker Shekau, is even alive. Last week, an official spokesperson said Mr. Shekau was dead, without offering proof. 

Meanwhile, Boko Haram is continuing its escalation of attacks and blood, with a twin bombings in the town of Jos that killed more than 100 people. Three days ago a suicide bomb in Kano, in the north, took another five lives. Amnesty International estimates some 1,500 killed by Boko Haram since January. 

For months, Nigeria has said little about the insurgent group that has long said it wants to create a sharia state in the north and northeast. Nigerians complain the government appears to lack authority or coordination.

For example, Tanimu Turaki, who heads a presidential committee tasked with dialogue with Boko Haram, said last week, after Shekau’s video offer to swap girls for prisoners, that "the window of negotiation is still open."

Yet the next day Nigerian Senate President David Mark, from Mr. Jonathan's political party, said that "Nigeria will not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstance."

On May 15, the state-funded Voice of Nigeria station quoted Information Minister Labaran Maku as saying, "Government has made it very clear that we are ready to go to any length to secure the release of our daughters that have been in captivity." He said other statements "should be discounted." 

"I think these conflicting signals are not helping matters on the ground, because it is further creating confusing in the whole process," said Shehu Sani, president of the Kaduna-based rights group, Civil Rights Congress.

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