Boko Haram Denies Involvement in Nigeria Hostage Killing

Nigeria's government says radical Islamic sect Boko Haram killed the two European hostages who died during a British-Nigerian rescue attempt Thursday. However, a spokesman for the militant group has denied involvement.

A pair of hostages -- one British, one Italian -- died Thursday during a failed rescue attempt in the sleepy town of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said that Boko Haram militants were behind the kidnapping and killing of the two men.

Little is known about the radical anti-government sect based in the far northeast, though a mysterious spokesman known as Abul Qaqa regularly communicates by phone with journalists in Maiduguri, the sect's base.  He mentioned the hostages for the first time Friday.

The spokesman told journalists that the group has always claimed responsibility for its operations.  He said they are not in any way involved in the killing of the foreign hostages.  He said it is not in their tradition to take hostages or attack foreigners.  The spokesman said their "course is clear" and they have been telling the world about it for a while.  He did however take responsibility for other fatal attacks around northeastern Nigeria in recent days.

Boko Haram's name in the Hausa language means "Western education is a sin," a reference to what it sees as a corrupt, Western-educated elite that has confiscated power in Nigeria.  The group is calling for stricter application of sharia, or Islamic law in northern Nigeria.

Northern Nigeria has become host to what analysts say is an increasingly complex cast of militant Islamists, of which Boko Haram is the dominant and best-known player.

Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks that Human Rights Watch says has killed more than 1,000 people since the group's reemergence in 2010, including a suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Abuja last June.

Still, analysts doubted the government claims of Boko Haram's involvement in Thursday's incident.  The group has not been involved in hostage-taking in the past, and the northwest -- where the hostages were taken and ultimately found -- is outside of Boko Haram's usual stomping ground.

Security expert and retired Nigerian army major Yayhu Sakunu says poor border control has made northern Nigerian a "free-for-all" for criminal groups.

"Everyone can come from everywhere, from out of the country, and he will have his bed.  He will have the type of people he wants and be able to do what he wants to do.  The government has to do something about this cross-border, most especially around this northern part of the country where people can easily infiltrate," Sakunu said.

An unknown group calling themselves "Al-Qaida of the Land Beyond the Sahel" initially claimed to be holding the two construction workers.  Many suspected the involvement of al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, who regularly kidnap foreigners in the Sahel.

Nigerian and American military officials say some Boko Haram members have forged links to the al-Qaida franchise.  Experts say that the core Boko Haram cell has splintered into factions of varying extremism.

The director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington, J. Peter Pham, said Boko Haram is evolving rapidly and involvement by a more radicalized offshoot of the group is possible, but not likely.

"There is no record that they [Boko Haram] have kidnapped for ransom but that doesn't mean that they won't do that.  Just like there was no record of a suicide bombing until last June but then they began.  It is possible that in their growing relationship with AQIM, which I think evidence points to, that they have adopted kidnapping.  It is certainly not to be precluded," Pham said.

The Nigerian government says it was able to take some of the captors into custody. A government spokesman told VOA that any new group to blame for the kidnapping and killing of the hostages would still be part of the Boko Haram network.

Analysts told VOA that the government's speedy accusation of Boko Haram could have been politically motivated.

"It would certainly be in the interest of the Nigerian government to blame this on Boko Haram and to draw in a major Western country like Britain into conflict with Boko Haram," Pham said.

The government has come under increasing fire for its failure to control growing insecurity in the north. Critics say the government's violent crackdown on suspected Boko Haram members in recent months has in fact escalated violence.

VOA News