Al-Qaeda’s strength in Africa is expanding.  Cells in northern Africa are spreading southwards to Nigeria, eager to recruit impressionable Muslims to join their international terror network.  In the wake of January’s violent clash between Christians and Muslims in the diverse city of Jos, al-Qaeda’s immediate reaction was to equip and train young Muslims for jihad. According to the Washington Post, Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) announced that al-Qaeda is prepared to provide training, manpower, munitions, and various other resources to push Nigeria’s young men into jihad.

Considering the high levels of poverty and limited governance throughout the country, many Nigerians are left susceptible to extremist activity.  While roughly 40 percent of Nigeria’s 149 million citizens are Christian and 50 percent are Muslim, the two religions are geographically divided with the Muslims residing in the northern part of the country and the Christians in the south. The violence last January killing 326 people has left the Muslim population vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.  Nigeria’s government has done very little to curb this threat.  Its own president Umaru Yar’adua has been out of the country, seeking medical care in Saudi Arabia and unable to run the country. In a town hall meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, decried the Nigerian government as failing to respond to the legitimate needs of its youth.  She acknowledged that young people are finding other options and are often recruited by terrorist organizations as the Christmas Day bomber was.

Terrorist organizations in Africa, such as Al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, aspire foremost to local or national influence rather than international terrorism.  While they generally harbor extremist sentiments towards the Western world, they lack the resources and the network needed to conduct operations against Europe or the United States.   Al-Qaeda, on the other hand has waged attacks on American soil and possesses the capabilities to attack again.  Therefore, when al-Qaeda provides smaller terrorist groups with sophisticated support to young men who would otherwise yield machetes and small arms, these terrorist groups immediately become a direct threat to national security.  In dealing with Nigeria, the U.S. needs to tackle the al-Qaeda challenge intelligently.  It must be careful not to radicalize a comparatively moderate Muslim population with heavy-handed treatment and public shaming, yet it needs keep steady pressure on a confused and distracted regime to cooperate in isolating and neutralizing the penetration of al-Qaeda into Nigeria and Western Africa.