Boko Haram is probably beyond the reach of global sanctions but attempts to curb the Nigerian Islamists’ reign of terror is an indication of growing international commitment, analysts said.
The UN Security Council this week designated the extremist group as an Al-Qaeda-linked organisation, cementing long-held suspicions of its ties to militants in the global jihadi movement.
But with sanctions designed to cut off overseas funding and support for Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last month, there are doubts about what impact they might have on the ground.
“Boko Haram has for several years now existed beyond the formal parameters where an arms embargo or asset-freeze would affect the group,” Jacob Zenn, from the Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the United States, told AFP.
“Its funding comes from kidnappings-for-ransom, which are already illegal, and also non-state actors like AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and likely state actors that avoid the global financial system to transfer money...
“Arms come from raiding Nigerian armories or smuggling networks, such as those from Libya via the Tuareg region of Mali,” he said in an email exchange.
Omoyele Sowore of Nigeria’s Sahara Reporters website told BBC radio on Friday that Boko Haram was different from global extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in terms of structure and funding.
“Boko Haram commanders and their leaders do not travel with passports, they travel on the ground in hijacked vehicles; they don’t have any formal assets that anyone can point to -- it is not a formal organisation,” he said.
The United States and several Western countries have previously blacklisted Boko Haram but that has done little to stop the cycle of violence which, if anything, has increased this year.
On Tuesday, at least 118 people were killed in a twin car bomb attack in the central city of Jos, while on the day of the girls’ kidnapping in April, 75 were killed in a blast in the capital, Abuja.
In the same town on Saturday, at least three people were killed in an explosion targeting football fans watching the European Champions League final.
At the same time, there has been no let-up in devastating Boko Haram attacks on remote villages in northeast Nigeria.
Kyari Mohammed, a Boko Haram specialist and head of the Centre for Peace Studies in Yola, said the Jos attacks indicated that the group was stepping up its activities in the face of international attention over its massive abduction of the schoolgirls.
Nigeria and its neighbours vowed last week at a security summit in Paris to increase co-operation and intelligence-sharing because of the insurgency’s potential threat to regional stability.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan also upped the rhetoric, calling Boko Haram “Al-Qaeda in western and central Africa”.
Mohammed questioned whether the greater focus on a hitherto local militant group could legitimise them in the wider jihadi network.
“If they have any allies across the Sahel or beyond they can get more support.... We have succeeded in giving them the kind of profile that they didn’t have. They’re now a bigger player,” he said.
Elizabeth Donnelly, from the Chatham House international affairs think-tank in London, cautioned against overstating Boko Haram’s current reach.
The UN sanctions were “largely symbolic”, she said.
“This is not a truly international organisation (yet) and given what little information there is about both the scale and source of the group’s resources it won’t have much immediate impact in that respect,” she added.
“But it is an important international signal to both the Nigerian state and Boko Haram.”
Zenn agreed that the sanctions were an indicator of a more serious attempt on the part of the international community to take on Boko Haram.
He suggested Boko Haram could yet spring a surprise, with a “retaliatory” attack on Western interests “in Africa or even as far as Europe” with help from AQIM or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Keep in mind it also has 10 Chinese hostages in its possession as well as two Canadian priests and an Italian nun,” he said, referring to suspected Boko Haram kidnappings in Cameroon in recent months.
Nigeria has until recently held off requesting international assistance to tackle Boko Haram, according to Western diplomats in the country and security experts.
But the girls’ abduction -- and criticism of Nigeria’s slow, initial response -- has been a tipping point, they say.
A senior Nigerian security official told AFP on Friday that the kidnapping had laid bare the country’s inability to deal with the militants and that they had no option now but to accept international help.
The writer filed this article for AFP from Lagos