ABUJA (Reuters) - When Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan branded Boko Haram “al Qaeda in West Africa”, it was sure to turn up the alarm among Western policy-makers, if its kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls was not enough.
Yet while Jonathan’s remarks, made at a meeting of regional leaders in Paris this month, hold some truth, analysts say Boko Haram is overall not an al Qaeda affiliate in West Africa - nor is it likely to become one.
Boko Haram’s own aims remain thoroughly local and its behavior, especially killing Muslim civilians and kidnapping girls, runs against the al Qaeda leadership’s current thinking.
The insurgents’ fight for an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria remains driven largely by domestic factors. It is fast making what is now Africa’s largest economy look like a failing state.
They could however become a wider international problem down the line, analysts say.
In Boko Haram’s early days, when it was evolving from a clerical movement to a violent insurrection, the leader of one of several rival factions, Adnan Ibrahim, dubbed it “al-Qaeda in West Africa”.
The label never stuck. Western powers, weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore took little interest in the group. This probably gave Boko Haram breathing space at the beginning, said Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at CTC.
“If they had called themselves ‘al Qaeda in Nigeria’, Boko Haram would have attracted the attention of the West,” he said.
In his numerous videos, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau talks a lot about local gripes and very little about global jihad, although he has made a few appeals to al-Qaeda in what appears to be no more than lip service.
“Shekau has several times said that BH (Boko Haram) is part of AQ - or aspires to be. So far, there has been no public response from the AQ leadership,” said Richard Barrett, an expert on al Qaeda and former coordinator of the United Nations al-Qaeda Taliban Monitoring Team.
The al Qaeda brand has suffered damage in recent years from increasingly extreme groups who assumed its name with a nod from founder Osama bin Laden or, since U.S. forces killed him in Pakistan in 2011, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Their later inability to control them proved embarrassing.
The first mistake was Al Qaeda in Iraq, also called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), whose brutality against civilians turned an initially supportive Sunni population against it from late 2007.
Internal correspondence shows Bin Laden - the inspiration behind the 2001 attacks on the United States - realized by 2010 that killings of civilians by jihadist groups had made them a liability, said Nelly Lahoud, a professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Al Qaeda broke ties with ISI, which is also fighting in Syria, in February. But al-Zawahiri’s acceptance of Somalia’s al Shabaab, who also kill Muslim civilians on a large scale, shows he was slow to learn from Bin Laden’s mistake, Lahoud said.
Zawahiri is unlikely to repeat that error with Boko Haram, a group he has never once publicly mentioned.
The Egyptian-born cleric last year issued an edict urging Islamist groups not to target civilians, as he sought to rein in jihadist elements.
The last thing he needs is to be seen supporting a group that kills hundreds of Muslim civilians. Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls last month, although it garnered the sect worldwide publicity, will only compound that unease.
“The sort of behavior Boko Haram is carrying out doesn’t live up to the standards al Zawahiri has set,” said Lahoud. “The attacks on civilians and particularly these girls is not something he would sanction. Boko Haram has crossed the line.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) did have firm links with Boko Haram but it is not clear how far this carried on after French forces kicked them out of Malian cities last year.
They are reported to have given Boko Haram $250,000 in 2012 and trained its members in kidnapping as a way to raise further money, Barrett said.
Though riven by its own internal squabbles, AQIM has focused on strategy sanctioned by Zawahiri and al Qaeda headquarters - hitting high value strategic targets like Algeria’s Amenas gas plant in January 2013 and kidnapping Western hostages for money or prisoner swaps.
For years intelligence officials have tracked visits by a small groups of Boko Haram fighters to Mali, when its desert north was being overrun by AQIM, and Niger. In both they met Algerian brigades of AQIM fighters for training and weapons.
The deadly U.N. headquarters bombing in August 2011 was the only Boko Haram attack targeting a Western institution. The suspected mastermind, Maman Nur, had trained with AQIM and al Shabaab, security officials said.
But there are signs AQIM is not totally comfortable with them. A Boko Haram faction called Ansaru, blamed for the killing of several Western hostages, is AQIM’s bona fide affiliate in Nigeria, and called itself “al Qaeda in the Land Beyond the Sahara” in a video with a British and Italian hostage in 2011.
Ansaru broke off from Boko Haram in protest at its killing 186 mostly Muslim civilians in the medieval Islamic city of Kano in early 2012.
When AQIM seized northern Mali in early 2012, its leader Abdelmalek Droukdel exhorted its supporters to win the hearts and minds of the local population - not provoking them or applying sharia too harshly or quickly. That seems a far cry from Boko Haram’s murderous campaign in northern Nigeria.
Zenn said Jonathan’s claim that Boko Haram was no longer just a local threat has some merit - there was a “financial, ideological and weapons transfer relationship,” from al Qaeda without which Boko Haram could not have got so violent.
Jennifer Giroux, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, said there were broader known links between various Islamist militant movements in the region.
Boko Haram had reached a tipping point, she said, with the state so powerless to curb its activities that it could evolve into a regional issue and join with a global jihad agenda.
Even so, some saw Jonathan’s statement as a bid to wash his hands of a homegrown issue feeding off poverty and unemployment.
“If you paint Boko Haram as an offshoot of a larger international threat, it gives him some level of excuse for the government failure to tackle them,” said Ben Payton, Senior Africa Analyst at London-based Maplecroft.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg and Joe Penney in Maiduguri