Have Boko Haram over-reached themselves?

Women attend a demonstration in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, calling on the government to rescue kidnapped schoolgirls of Chibok secondary school - Tuesday 29 April 2014 Image copyright AP

From the world's largest bloc of Islamic countries came unequivocal condemnation on Thursday.

Reacting to last month's mass abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist gunmen from Boko Haram, top Muslim scholars from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said this "crime and other crimes committed by the likes of these extremist organisations contradicts all humanitarian principles and moral values and violates the provisions of the Koran and Sunna''- or teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

No surprises there, as this senseless kidnapping of children has been roundly condemned by almost the entire world. But how has it gone down with al-Qaeda, to which Boko Haram professes nominal allegiance?

More than three weeks have elapsed since news of the abduction first emerged and the reaction from al-Qaeda's core leadership has been interesting - total silence.

There has not even been a public reaction from its nearest branch, in the Sahara, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It might sound ironic that a movement which extolled the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 attacks of 2001 should draw the line at this latest atrocity, committed in the name of the jihadist cause.

But the truth is that Boko Haram's actions have become an embarrassment to people who might otherwise have supported their fight against the Nigerian authorities.

Al-Qaeda's leaders have learned from their mistakes over time. In Iraq in 2006 they saw how jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's constant beheadings were alienating the local population and told him to stop.

They also told al-Qaeda's Iraq branch to stop blowing up Shia mosques, as this too was adding to their unpopularity.

In Syria this year al-Qaeda formally disowned the jihadist group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) - again because of its excessive brutality.

Bad publicity

In Yemen this year al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was quick to distance itself from the embarrassing sight - caught on CCTV and posted online by the government - of one of its fighters casually tossing a grenade into a group of terrified medics at a hospital it was raiding.

It did not deny that it carried out the raid but said the man who threw the grenade was exceeding his orders and had been duly punished.

Boko Haram at a glance

Image copyright AFP
  • Founded in 2002
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
  • Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
  • Some three million people affected
  • Declared terrorist group by US in 2013

Who are Boko Haram?

Profile: Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

Why Nigeria has not defeated Boko Haram

'My family is crying and grieving'

In other words, al-Qaeda's wiser heads are not insensitive to bad publicity when they can see it is costing them sympathy amongst potential supporters.

What little reaction there has been on jihadi internet forums to the Nigerian schoolchildren story has been a mixture of bafflement and irritation. Why doesn't al-Qaeda intervene to order Boko Haram to release them? says one. It is a plot to discredit Islam, suggests another.

It is clear then, that unless - and this is extremely unlikely - this is a macabre plan ordered by al-Qaeda's leaders that has backfired spectacularly, Boko Haram are acting independently and following their own local agenda.

But Gill Lusk of the Africa Confidential newsletter argues that it has not necessarily been a disaster for the group.

Although kidnapping innocent schoolgirls might look counter-productive, the aim of al-Qaeda linked movements is not primarily to be popular, she says, "but to further their politico-religious aims through terrorism, as we saw when Boko Haram attacked the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja," in 2011.

"The school attack has given the jihadist militia worldwide publicity and from its point of view, that is a huge success," Ms Lusk told the BBC.

All this prompts the question of what links, if any, there are between Boko Haram in Nigeria and its al-Qaeda allies.

There are connections, but they appear to be haphazard and opportunistic, rather than a formal agreed plan to co-operate.

The "underpants bomber" Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab came from a respected Nigerian family but was recruited by al-Qaeda in Yemen to carry an explosive device in his underwear which he tried, unsuccessfully, to detonate in 2009 as his airliner came in to land at Detroit.

Nigerian fighters from Boko Haram have reportedly turned up in Somalia at training camps run by the militant group al-Shabab.

And after Boko Haram bombed the UN regional headquarters in Abuja in 2011, experts said the methodology and explosive used revealed the hand of AQIM.

But whatever links there have been in the past between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda's various franchises, the Nigerian group's latest actions have attracted such unanimous international condemnation that few will want to be publicly associated with them for quite some time.

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