In 2002, Osama bin Laden dispatched an aide to Nigeria to hand out $3 million in local currency to a wide array of Salafist political organizations there that shared al Qaeda's goal of imposing Islamic rule.
According to an overlooked report from a well-respected international watchdog, one of those organizations was Boko Haram, the terrorist outfit that's become globally infamous for its threat to sell girls into slavery. In other words, bin Laden helped provide Boko Haram's seed money, this report maintains.
Officially, the U.S. intelligence community assesses that the group has only tangential links to al Qaeda's north African affiliate, and that reports of bin Laden backing the Nigerian outfit are off-base. But inside the secret state, many analysts believe that the ties between Boko Haram and al Qaeda global leadership go much deeper—and are about more than a little seed money.
"There were channels between bin laden and Boko Haram leadership," one senior U.S. intelligence offical told The Daily Beast. "He gave some strategic direction at times."
At issue are still secret documents captured from Osama bin Laden's lair in Pakistan in 2011. According to two senior U.S. intelligence officials, the trove of documents includes correspondence between leaders of Boko Haram and al Qaeda's central leadership, including Osama bin Laden. Other U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast have stressed that the documents only include letters from Boko Haram to bin Laden—the terror leader never replied back.
"There were channels between bin laden and Boko Haram leadership. He gave some strategic direction at times."
The dispute inside the intelligence community falls along familiar lines about al Qaeda. The White House has emphasized the distinctions between al Qaeda's core and its affiliates and other aspiring jihadists, who the White House sees as operating almost entirely independent of the central group.
However, another faction inside the U.S. intelligence community—one that comprises the current leadership of the Defense Intelligence Agency and others working in the military—see al Qaeda as a flatter organization that coordinates between nodes and operates through consensus in the model of an Islamic Shura council.
In the case of the Boko Haram debate, this latter group inside the intelligence community have pointed to documentation and raw intelligence that suggested the Nigerian group had evolved over time—particularly after 2010—into something that resembles an unofficial al Qaeda affiliate and a threat to the west.
That debate was one factor that delayed the official branding of Boko Haram as a terrorist group until November, despite the fact that many U.S. agencies like the FBI pressed the State Department to list the group as a foreign terrorist organization far earlier, according to two senior U.S. intelligence officials.
One senior intelligence official said that by 2012, White House officials like then-counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan downplayed these documents, saying that they only represented the vague aspirations of al Qaeda's central leadership and Boko Haram's chiefs to work together. Another U.S. intelligence official said, "Boko Haram is really on the periphery of the al Qaeda universe."
Both the Guardian and the Washington Post reported in 2012 that documents regarding Boko Haram would be included in the small batch of declassified documents related to the raid on bin Laden's lair. But those documents were not included among the 17 documents out of hundreds of thousands that were declassified by the Obama administration in 2012.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a senior editor of the Long War Journal, which tracks the U.S. war against al Qaeda, has reported before about the Boko Haram documents found in the bin Laden compound.
"Releasing the bin Laden files showing contacts between al Qaeda's senior leaders and Boko Haram would help us better understand the precise relationship between the two," he said. "Even absent those documents, however, there is abundant evidence tying Boko Haram to al Qaeda's international network."
Joscelyn pointed to the State Department's announcement of a $7 million reward for Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau in 2013 as one example that noted "reported links" between Boko Haram and al Qaeda's affiliates based in Yemen, North Africa and Somalia.
Another link was unveiled last month in a comprehensive report on Boko Haram published by the International Crisis Group (PDF). The report says that Boko Haram's early leader, Mohammed Yusuf, received some seed money from a disciple of Osama bin Laden named Mohammed Ali in 2002. The report adds that bin Laden got to know Ali in the 1990s when he was based in Sudan. After Ali traveled with bin Laden to Afghanistan he was provided with $3 million in Nigerian currency in 2002 and sent to the north of the country to fund a wide array of Salafist political organizations to help spread al-Qaeda's ideology. Ali then became involved in the Nigeria's Muslim insurgency but was eventually killed. In 2007 gunmen from Boko Haram killed a man they believed to be complicit in Ali's murder.
E.J Hogendoorn, the deputy program director for Africa for the International Crisis Group and an author of the report said information about Ali and bin Laden's seed money came from a Nigerian researcher's interview with a member of Boko Haram "who was very knowledgeable about the origins of the group."
U.S. intelligence officials contacted by The Daily Beast disagreed on whether such seed money was ever provided by bin Laden at this early date. Hogendoorn, however, said that the story was credible, considering bin Laden's public statements at the time regarding Nigeria and bin Laden's support for other Islamists when he was in Sudan. In 2002 bin Laden released audio recordings calling on Nigerian Muslims to rise up against the state.
"We are not saying all $3 million went to Boko Haram," Hogendoorn said. "What I can tell you from talking to lots of conservative Muslims in Nigeria is that there was a lot of money coming into northern Nigeria, there are many sources of that money. One of those sources was from al Qaeda."