A screen grab made on October 21, 2010 in Kano from a video allegedly released by the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram in northern Nigeria reportedly shows two alleged sect members standing against a background of a Google Earth shot of the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi with the triangular city prison visible. Boko Haram ‘spokesman’ claims responsibility for the attack on the UN building in Abuja that killed 18 on August 26, 2011.

It’s about time Congress started paying more attention to terrorism in Nigeria.

This morning, Congressman Patrick Meehan (R–PA), chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, announced that the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram poses an emerging threat to U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland.

The hearing coincided with the subcommittee’s release of a report outlining Boko Haram’s evolution, rapid escalation of attacks, and ties with al-Qaeda. The report recommends that the United States provide diplomatic, military, and intelligence support to Nigeria in addition to investigating whether Boko Haram should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

These steps are a welcome start. However, Congress should ensure that increased engagement with Nigeria as well as the resources the U.S. provides are used effectively and that the Nigerian government makes meaningful progress in addressing this threat.

The Nigerian government does not have a good track record in combating Boko Haram. In July 2009, a raid by Nigerian security forces in Bauchi state killed 700 people and resulted in the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram’s founder, Ustz Mohammed Yusuf. Following the raid, Boko Haram vowed to regroup and escalate its attacks against the Nigerian state.

In the past year Boko Haram has waged frequent attacks against government forces and civilians across northern Nigeria and in the capital city of Abuja, committing its first international attack against U.N. headquarters last August.

Nigeria’s security forces have a history of unprofessional and brutal conduct. Civilians across the north often fear government soldiers as much as they fear Boko Haram. The Nigerian government has combined brutal tactics with prospective attempts to negotiate with the militants.

Last August, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan appointed seven government officials to explore various options in dealing with the organization. In September, the committee urged the government to engage in open talks with militants despite its bloody acts. Yet doing so would only grant Boko Haram legitimacy.

The Nigerian government has also failed to address the marginalization of Nigeria’s northern populations. Much of this is owed to the stark sectarian divisions within the country, as it is split between Christians residing in the south and Muslims in the north. As a Christian who is believed to have stolen last April’s presidential election by northerners, Jonathan has not addressed the challenges that northern populations face, including unemployment, lack of education, and widespread poverty.

The Nigerian government’s scattered approach to combating Boko Haram should concern the United States. While Boko Haram does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, that doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. The Nigerian government should take the threat that Boko Haram poses more seriously.

It was only a few weeks ago that Nigerian national security advisor General Owoeye Andrew Azazi criticized the United States for activating a security alert, as it was believed that Boko Haram posed an immediate threat to U.S. citizens. While the U.S. later withdrew the alert, the Nigerian government should not have questioned America’s duty to protect its citizens.

When exploring engagement with the Nigerian government as well as the distribution of assistance, the United States should make sure that Nigeria is a responsible partner. This will require the Nigerian government’s progress toward improved governance and addressing domestic concerns.