(CNSNews.com) – At least 36 people were killed in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state when a car bomb exploded near a church during an Easter Sunday service.
Some Nigerian media reports said security guards at a checkpoint had prevented the driver of the car from approaching the All Nations Christian Assembly Church building while the service was underway. The blast, which police described as massive, occurred just minutes later. Most of the dead were reported to be people at a market and passers-by.
Multiple bomb attacks targeting Christians have occurred in northern parts of Africa’s most populous country in recent months, carried out by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram. Among them was a Christmas Day attack on a church near the federal capital, Abuja, which cost more than 40 lives.
The group has repeatedly vowed to use violence to cleanse northern Nigeria – where shari’a has been imposed in 12 states since 1999 – of minority Christians. Other declared goals include banning non-Islamic education and imposing shari’a across Nigeria, despite the fact 40 percent of the country’s 155 million people are Christians. Boko Haram’s name roughly translates “Western education is forbidden.”
As Easter approached, the U.S. and British embassies in Abuja warned citizens to steer clear of northern Nigeria for fear of Boko Haram attacks and to be particularly vigilant around churches and places frequented by expatriates. The U.S. message cited “continued threats, including several that mention U.S. interests.”
Security experts say Boko Haram is suspected to have links to al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as to Somalia’s al-Shabaab, which in turn is also linked to al-Qaeda.
Christians have been the primary target of Boko Haram’s attacks, although a suicide bombing at United Nations headquarters in Abuja last August left 25 dead.
Last week Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), chairman of the committee’s counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee, urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law.
Citing a bipartisan report the committee first released last November entitled “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” King and Meehan said the group had intensified its terror campaign since then.
“The brazenness and sophistication of these attacks are hallmarks of al-Qaeda tradecraft,” they wrote. “Boko Haram’s rapid progression from a machete wielding mob to a full blown al-Qaeda affiliate targeting the United Nations and Western interests is deeply concerning to multiple members of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
Role of religion debated
Following the latest bloodshed, Islamic leaders told Nigerian media that the violence has “nothing to do with” Islam.
Nigeria’s Guardian quoted several Muslim politicians, academics and other figures telling a conference that violence in any form was against the teachings of Islam. They called for the establishment of a center to disseminate information about Islam that counters “wrong perception” about the faith.
Still, Boko Haram’s violent campaign has taken hold in a country where, according to opinion surveys, radical views enjoy significant support among Muslims.
Osama bin Laden in 2003 identified Nigeria as one of the world’s six “most qualified regions for liberation” by Islamic fighters. (The other five were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan.) The al-Qaeda terrorist urged Muslims in the six countries to take steps “to establish the rule of Allah on earth.”
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late last month, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said that religion was “not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria,” and said Boko Haram “attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.”
The group was focused mainly on discrediting the Nigerian government and on “local Nigerian issues and actors,” he said.
Carson did acknowledge there were “reports of contact and growing relationships between elements of Boko Haram and other extremists in Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
In contrast to Carson’s comments about religion not being the “primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body that advises the administration and Congress, does describe the violence as “religiously-motivated.”
“USCIRF commends Nigerian religious leaders who have condemned Boko Haram’s religiously-motivated violence and urges continued interreligious condemnation of threats or attacks in the name of religion,” it said in a statement last week.
“The U.S. government should continue to engage the Nigerian government as intensely as possible to ensure that the actions of these religious leaders are paralleled by Nigeria’s justice leaders bringing all perpetrators of violence to speedy justice,” it said.
According to the USCIRF, more than 14,000 Nigerians have been killed in religiously-related violence between Christians and Muslims since 1999.
The U.S. government is planning to open a consulate in Kano, a flashpoint city in the northern shari’a belt, to help advance U.S. development assistance activity and public diplomacy programs in the north.
The U.S. had a consulate in Kaduna in past years, but when Nigeria moved its federal capital from Lagos in the south-west to Abuja in the center in the early 1990s, the consulate was shut down and a consulate opened in Lagos.