The Christmas Day terror attacks on Nigerian churches that killed at least 25 worshipers were a grim reminder that even as al-Qaeda finds its opportunities limited in South Asia and the Arab world, Africa is opening up new ones. The Somali Shebab movement is a well-known menace, allying with al-Qaeda to boost its own fundraising and technical capabilities as it wages a self-styled jihad against the pro-Western African regimes such as Kenya and Ethiopia that have intervened in the failed state of Somalia. But the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the chaos that has followed in Libya has opened opportunities there, attracting jihadists from as far away as Pakistan, while the Christmas Day attacks were the work of the movement called Boko Haram, which is believed to have links with al-Qaeda and is actively trying to stoke a religious civil war in Nigeria.
That’s a worrying development, since Nigeria is a key strategic player in Africa. It ranks fifth among suppliers from which the U.S. buys its oil, settling almost half of its vast output in America. And as one of the few states capable of projecting power, Nigeria has long been established by Washington as a lynchpin of regional security in a part of the world earmarked to be a major supplier of energy to the United States in years to come. Yet the Nigerian state is weak and heavy handed, showing little ability to contain a challenge that could sink the country into a civil war.
Nigeria has often been the country to which the U.S. and other Western powers look to respond to neighborhood crises such as stopping the bloodbath in Sierra Leone in 1997. A sectarian breakdown in Nigeria is good news for jihadists seeking to base themselves in failed states; bad news for U.S. and other Western and allied countries looking to destroy the extremist movement.