Boko Haram shows changing Al Qaeda threat

Washington: The kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last month has sparked global outrage, launched an international manhunt and instantly turned an obscure West African militant group into a household name in the United States. And it has raised a central question: Does the rapidly growing number of al Qaeda splinter groups pose as much of a threat as al Qaeda itself?

Over the last five years, al Qaeda has atomised, according to experts. As drone strikes and other attacks weakened the core, small, largely autonomous groups inspired by Osama bin Laden's ideology are emerging, becoming self-financing and, in some cases, growing more radicalised than the parent itself.

Boko Haram, for example, is inspired by al Qaeda but acts on its own and, according to US officials, receives most of its funding from local robberies and kidnappings. Its abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls prompted complaints from some militants that its tactics could drive down popular support for the broader movement.

In Syria and Iraq, the same is true of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, disavowed by core al Qaeda after the parent urged it to kill fewer civilians and obey other edicts. Al Qaeda splinter groups of varying loyalty have also emerged in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Egypt.

"The number of jihadist groups is greater than it has ever been," said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation. "The trends are not good."

Republicans say the rising number of groups proves that the Obama administration's approach to terrorism is failing. White House officials argue that most of the groups are focused on local conflicts, not international terrorism. Experts agree that the groups represent a limited threat now but there is no consensus on what they could become.

Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation and author of four books on al Qaeda, said Boko Haram and similar groups wreak havoc in the countries where they operate. But they currently pose little threat to the United States because they are focused on toppling local governments.

"The people who are saying this is really a big problem have no historical perspective," Bergen said. "This is not al Qaeda on September 10, 2001 or even close."

But Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution and former Obama administration adviser, said the new groups will eventually shift their focus to attacking the United States.

"We are seeing the next generation of Al Qaedaism," Riedel said in an email, "more decentralised but just as dangerous.

Published on by Marty M.