An unusual terrorism case started in Nigeria late last week. Prosecutors in the capital city of Abuja accused two local men of being members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. They were charged with accepting thousands of dollars from the group to recruit potential terrorists inside Nigeria and then send them to Yemen. Olaniyi Lawal, 31, and Luqman Babatunde, 30, have pleaded not guilty.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have been watching the case unfold with alarm because it suggests that al-Qaida's most aggressive affiliate, a group that has targeted the U.S. on numerous occasions, is seeking to boost its presence in Africa.
The Next Battlefront?
"For them to have reached into a country as far from Yemen as Nigeria is highly unusual and it is indicative of its new strategy in Africa," says Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at Kings College London. "Al-Qaida's leaders have, for some time, been on the lookout for a new hot battlefront where they can implant themselves."
He says for a time that battlefield was Somalia. And Yemen.
"And of course, Nigeria is something that has popped out of nowhere, really," Neumann says, "and they are trying to capitalize on that, trying to turn this into a conflict essentially that is part of the global jihad."
In other words, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is trying to join forces with local Islamists so it can add to the ranks of its war against the West.
Nigeria has been in the throes of a violent Islamist insurgency for more than two years. An Islamist group called Boko Haram — which literally means "Western education is forbidden" — has been trying to trigger a civil war in Nigeria. The conflict pits the Muslim population, which largely lives in the north, against the Christian population in the south. The ultimate goal, as the group sees it, is to build an independent state in northern Nigeria and turn it into a Muslim caliphate.
Al-Qaida's 'Global Ambitions'
Sam Rascoff, who teaches law and national security at New York University, says AQAP has always thought big.
"Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula doesn't confine its recruitment to Yemen and certainly doesn't confine its operational vision to the Arabian Peninsula," he says. "They're an organization with an increasingly global recruitment platform and global ambitions for where they are going to strike, and they see Nigeria as one of the places that will help them get there."
Al-Qaida's core leadership has had its eyes on Nigeria for years. Osama bin Laden himself had singled out Nigeria as fertile ground for terrorist recruitment back in 2003. In fact, U.S. officials found correspondence between bin Laden and leaders of Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgent group in the compound where bin Laden was killed.
AQAP's breakout terrorist attack against the West happened in 2009, when it sent a young Nigerian man on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with explosives in his underwear. The bomb misfired, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
This new case in Abuja's high court may be just the latest indication of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's focus on Nigeria. U.S. military officials say AQAP may have some competition, however, from another al-Qaida arm, this one based in Africa itself. It's known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The general in charge of U.S. military operations in Africa talked about the group just last month during a speech to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
"We're increasingly concerned about al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb," Carter Ham said. "Most notably, I would say the linkages between al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are most likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials."
Neumann, the London terrorism expert, says that could be dangerous not just for Nigeria, but for the West as well.
"So far, really, it is a local, Nigerian conflict," he says. "But the influence of al-Qaida could turn this into a sort of global confrontation between the West and Islam as they see it."
Al-Qaida has done this before. It offers money and training and recruits to local groups, and in exchange, those groups swear allegiance and join the fight against the West. Counterterrorism officials are monitoring whether al-Qaida will be able to reprise that scenario in Nigeria.