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Boko Haram fighters train with al-Qaeda’s North African branch in northern Mali, France’s Foreign Minister said yesterday.
Citing documents recovered in the remote Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali, following the French intervention earlier this year, Laurent Fabius said Boko Haram’s presence there demonstrated the interconnection of jihadist groups in Africa.
“This is a source of concern for all of us,” he said at the opening of a conference in Morocco on regional responses to security challenges.
Formed in 2009, Boko Haram seeks to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria and is blamed for thousands of deaths, including the bombing of the U.N. building in the capital in 2011.
A French priest was kidnapped yesterday in Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria in an area where Boko Haram is known to operate, the French Foreign Ministry said.
While Boko Haram was believed to have links with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the deserts to the north, the actual training of the group in northern Mali was not widely known.
Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch teamed up with extremists from the desert-dwelling Tuaregs to take over northern Mali, until they were driven out by a French-backed African force early this year.
There are long standing concerns that extremist groups throughout the poorly controlled desert regions were coordinating their activities.
Yesterday’s conference, which included foreign ministers from France and some African countries, is seeking to improve regional security cooperation and address porous borders, especially in Libya.
Since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, security has broken down in Libya and weapons and drug smugglers cross the borders in the south with impunity.
Following the French intervention in Mali, it is widely believed that elements of al-Qaeda took refuge in southern Libya, working with smuggling networks.
“The fact remains that as organised crime transcends international borders, there is no doubt in my mind that this type of networking exists with elements of al-Qaeda,” Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Ahmed Abdelaziz told The Associated Press on the margins of the conference. “This type of networking has serious implications on the security of the borders.”
Nigeria requires more regional help to tackle Boko Haram militants in its restive northeast but the country is likely to have to shoulder most of the burden on its own for now, according to analysts.
The Nigerian military said they were encouraged by the US decision.
“It appears they now understand the reality of the challenges we face in dealing with Boko Haram,” said Defence spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade.
A senior military official last week urged neighbouring Cameroon to do more to help tackle the Islamist insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives since 2009 and caused international concern over its potential to spread.
The multi-national force enforcing emergency rule in Nigeria’s extreme northeast and tasked with hunting down militants is made up of Nigerian troops, assisted by soldiers from Chad and Niger.
“Cameroon has not contributed troops. Cameroon ought to be on board and it is seen as the weak link in the fight against Boko Haram,” said Kyari Mohammed, a Boko Haram specialist at the Modibbo Adama University in Yola, Adamawa state.
“If Cameroon decides to close its borders, it would help,” Mohammed, who is director of the University’s Center for Peace Studies, told AFP.
A French priest has been kidnapped in northern Cameroon close to the border with Nigeria, the French foreign ministry said, according to BBC News.
Georges Vandenbeusch was seized early yesterday in Koza, about 30km (19 miles) from the border.
“We are working with Cameroonian authorities to secure his release,” French officials said in a statement.
The Nigerian Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, is known to operate in the area.
France said it warned people that the area was dangerous but that “Father Georges chose to remain in his parish to carry out his work”.
Earlier this year, seven members of a French family – three of them children – were abducted by Islamist militants and held hostage for two months.
Following the United States’ designation of Boko Haram and splinter group Ansaru as terrorist organisations, many Nigerians think the label will pressure the government to end the security crisis. But in the shadowy circles of militant groups, the label may also make the groups more famous, and some Nigerians fear that will further damage the country.
The government has been calling Boko Haram a terrorist organisation for years as relentless militant attacks have killed thousands of people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
Modakai Ibrahim, a Kaduna politician, said: “They have not spared anybody. They destroy the church. Before we were thinking that their target was only Christians. But now they have come to show us that they do not want peace. They do not want to live in harmony. They attack pastors. They attack Imams. We have had imams slaughtered. We have had people bombed in the mosque,” said Ibrahim.
Some Nigerians also believe that the U.S. decision means the country is now the home of two internationally recognised terrorist organisations. Others said the U.S. move could do more harm than good.
The Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna, Dauda Yakubu, said he feared the label would damage the reputation of the country and scare away investors.
“I believe any state or any country or any nation that is involved in terrorist issues has no development and there will never be peace in that country,” he said.
Abdullahi al-Hassan, a university student in Kaduna, said it would also make it harder for ordinary Nigerians to travel out. He said international airport authorities would fear any Nigerian could be a terrorist.
“There are also citizens that are not happy to fly into other countries because they will [be] looking [for] terrorists, despite that they are not,” he said.
Others said the label, which obligates the United States to freeze any financial dealings with Boko Haram and Ansaru that it would not really change anything in Nigeria.
Retired journalist Garba Iliasu based in Bauchi said the US should have labelled the group as terrorists four years ago, when the insurgency began.
“We were expecting that if there is sincerity on the part of the United States about its so-called ‘war on terror’, America should have reacted the way it is doing now,” he said.
Some analysts said the Boko Haram insurgency, which has kept three northern states under emergency rule – Adamawa, Borno and Yobe – for six months, was too large to fight without international support. On the other hand, security experts said the label could give the group more prestige among Islamist militants, and potentially draw support.
Far to the south of Nigeria, where the group has never operated, Edward Oforomeh, a lawyer in the Niger Delta, said besides the carnage up north, the national economy was reeling as food prices soar with fewer northern meat and vegetable imports. United States involvement, he said, could potentially be a good thing.
“They have recognised the Boko Haram as their enemy, so they will not wait until they come and do a serious havoc on them before they go after them,” he said.
But Oforomeh also said Nigerians should be “wary” of American involvement, pointing out that Nigeria does not want to suffer the fate of Pakistan, with the United States fighting militants from other countries on their soil.