WASHINGTON -- Few terrorism experts would deny that a radical Islamist sect that has made a series of increasingly audacious attacks in Nigeria, including the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Africa's most populous nation this summer, is a growing threat. What isn't so clear is whether Boko Haram is an "emerging threat to the U.S. homeland."
Yet that's the title of a Wednesday hearing scheduled at the House Committee on Homeland Security's subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. The panel's chairman, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) appears to have drawn a straight line between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the radical Muslim group linked to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane by a Nigerian citizen.
"While some believe Boko Haram will focus only on targets within Nigeria and does not have the intent or capability to strike the U.S. homeland, the same was believed about AQAP and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, before the near fatal attacks over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and in Times Square in May 2010," Meehan said in a statement. "It is critical we examine all potential terrorist threats to the homeland, and I look forward to hearing from an expert panel on what steps the United States should take to ensure Boko Haram does not hit us here."
Among the scheduled experts, who all declined requests by The Huffington Post to provide advance copies of testimony, is Lauren Ploch, an Africa analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Earlier this year, she noted in a report on Nigeria that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has required additional screening of travelers flying from that country following the failed attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born "underwear bomber."
"Abdulmutallab's actions are considered by most to be an isolated incident, and many observers stress that, by all accounts, Abdulmutallab's radicalization and training took place outside Nigeria," Ploch wrote. "Nevertheless, the expansion of conservative Sunni Islamist movements and clashes between security forces and Islamist sects in northern Nigeria have raised concerns among some observers and officials that other Nigerians may be susceptible to recruitment by Al Qaeda or other groups hoping to use violence against government or civilian targets in Nigeria or abroad."
The previously obscure Boko Haram is an Islamist religious sect that formed in the northern part of Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, in 2002. Its Hausa-language name translates as "Western education is sin." Boko Haram has been dubbed the Nigerian Taliban by some and, like that fundamentalist group in Afghanistan, is fighting to overthrow its country's government. Its aim is to impose Shariah law throughout Nigeria, including the predominantly Christian south.
Until the bombing of the United Nations building, Boko Haram was viewed as a local menace and not another entrant in the global terrorism ranks. But continuing attacks on Western targets in Nigeria and a death toll reaching at least 330 people in 2011 alone have gained the attention of American officials.
Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said the group may be expanding, thanks to an alliance with the Algeria-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab of Somalia. And on Nov. 5, the U.S. Embassy in the Nigerian capital of Abuja issued a warning that Boko Haram may be planning to bomb three luxury hotels -- including a Hilton and a Sheraton -- that cater to Westerners.
Despite the group's growing reach, though, some experts doubt it can or intends to touch the U.S. homeland.
"I have seen no particular evidence of Boko Haram even targeting Western facilities," said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now an Africa analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, adding that "we have to be terribly careful" when assigning motives to the group. He said the bombed U.N. headquarters was in a building linked to the Nigerian government, and the hotels that U.S. officials warned Westerners to avoid are also patronized by the Nigerian elite.
"Boko Haram's focus is overwhelmingly domestic. Its enemies are secular and Nigerian, the military and police," Campbell told HuffPost. He also dismissed as "absolutely zero" the danger of Nigerian Americans becoming radicalized, as some members of Congress assert Somali Americans have. Most Nigerian immigrants, he noted, are from the country's south, and they are overwhelmingly Christian.
Scott Stewart, vice president of global intelligence for the security firm Stratfor, recently wrote that Boko Haram made a "large operational leap" this year when it detonated its first suicide car bomb at police headquarters in Abuja. But when HuffPost asked him whether the group posed a threat on U.S. soil, he emailed, "I do not believe so yet."
"Does the U.S. and the world need to keep a close eye on these guys? Certainly," Stewart wrote. "Do we anticipate them conducting an attack in Times Square in the next couple months? Very unlikely."
While the U.N. bombing showed a willingness to take on transnational targets, "I have seen no evidence that they have any intent to conduct attacks outside of Nigeria," Stewart concluded. "I am also skeptical they possess the intricate network required to project their growing capabilities outside of Nigeria's north, much less across the Atlantic."