Nigerian Islamist militants claim UN attack

Today's suicide attack on the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria marks the first time Boko Haram has struck a foreign target.

This image shows firefighters and rescue workers after a large explosion struck the United Nations' main office in Nigeria's capital Abuja on Friday, Aug. 26, flattening one wing of the building and killing several people. The building, located in the same neighborhood as the US embassy and other diplomatic posts in Abuja, had a huge hole punched in it.

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A suicide car bombing Friday on the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, killed at least 16 people, injured dozens, and destroyed the lower floors of the multistory building. Twenty-six UN agencies have offices in the building, which may have held as many as 400 people at the time of the attack.

Boko Haram, a radical Muslim group based in the country's northeast, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Associated Press. The group has targeted the Nigerian government and police before, but this is the first time it has struck an international organization.

"This is not an attack on Nigeria but on the global community," said Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Viola Onwuliri. "An attack on the world."

A UN official told the BBC that the UN received intelligence last month that it could expect an attack by Boko Haram and that it had stepped up security in response.

According to the spokeswoman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency, Yushau Shuaib, the vehicle passed through the first and second gates of the UN compound and detonated its explosives in the building's reception hall, CNN reports.

The attack was clearly meant for the UN building; there's no chance the target was a mistake, writes Elizabeth Dickinson, a former Nigeria correspondent for The Economist, on the blog UN Dispatch.

Abuja, as a city, looks a bit like a metropolis in the Arabian Gulf (or, say, Miami.) It’s spread out, the buildings are big and surrounded by parking lots and gates. You need a car to go anywhere. Even by that measure, the UN compound was separated from the other buildings in town — about a 20 minute drive from the center of the city, and about a five minute drive from the US Embassy. If the bomb went off at the UN compound, then that was the target; there’s no chance it could have been intended for another building as there are none nearby. That’s clearly why Nigeria’s minister of state for foreign affairs told BBC that this constituted an “act of international terrorism” – against the international community.

Abuja has seen a series of bombings recently. In June, a car blast killed five people at the city's police headquarters. In July, at least three people were killed in an explosion near a church outside Abuja. In October 2010, independence celebrations were interrupted by car bomb explosions, CNN reports.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a collection of southern rebel groups fighting for a fairer distribution of oil wealth earned in the Niger Delta, claimed responsibility for the independence day attack.

Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish Islamic law in Nigeria, is suspected in the other attacks. Although most of its violence has been limited to the country's northeast, where it is based, it has been blamed for attacks elsewhere in the country, Radio France Internationale reports.

According to The Telegraph, "The targeting of the UN building is in line with BH's desire to undermine the Nigerian state. We think that while Nigerian state and security force targets will continue to be the group's priority, the targeting of the UN building indicates a more global outlook probably influenced by al-Qaeda ideology."

The Nigerian government has been working up to a dialogue with Boko Haram. In July, it announced it would create a fact-finding committee on the group to guide government strategies for engagement, writes Alex Thurston, a PhD student who has studied Boko Haram.

Critical questions remain unanswered, such as how many people were involved in the attack and what the motivation was, Dickinson writes.

As more details emerge, some key questions in my mind will include: Which wing of the building (and hence, which agencies) were targeted and how many people carried out the attack. The former might give some clues as to the point that this attack was trying to make. The latter might give clues about the perpetrators’ sophistication and level of infiltration.

This is a sad day for Nigeria, and for anyone who watches Nigeria. This may well be the moment that we look back on to mark the beginning of Nigeria’s days as a terrorist haven. Most commentators are assuming (rather reasonably) that the Northern Islamist militant group Boko Haram may be implicated. If that’s the case, this attack represents a big shift in targets — from almost exclusively government ones to international organizations. It also marks a logistical shift. Up to this point, targets have been local and methods rudimentary. This clearly ups the ante.

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