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Dec 21, 5:57 AM EST

Nigeria's Boko Haram extremists pose regional threat with cross-border attacks and recruitment


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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) -- Thousands of members of Nigeria's home-grown Islamic extremist Boko Haram group strike across the border in Cameroon, with coordinated attacks on border towns, a troop convoy and a major barracks.

Farther north, Boko Haram employs recruits from Chad to enforce its control in northeastern Nigerian towns and cities.

In Niger, the government has declared a "humanitarian crisis" and appealed for international aid to help tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees driven from their homes by the insurgency.

These recent events show how neighboring countries are increasingly being drawn into Nigeria's Islamic uprising. Thousands of people have been killed in Nigeria's 5-year insurgency and some 1.6 million people driven from their homes.

"We are concerned about the increasing regionalization of Boko Haram," said Comfort Ero, Africa director for the International Crisis Group. The countries have been slow to recognize "the gravity and extent of the threat from Boko Haram."

Ero cautioned that cooperation between the neighboring countries is weak. "None of the sides is willing to share information with the other," Ero said. "There's always been a lack of confidence in terms of shared regional security."

She said there is also distrust of the capabilities of Nigeria's once-proud military, which has been battered by Boko Haram. A court-martial this week sentenced 54 soldiers to death by firing squad for refusing to fight the extremists.

Chad responded this week by opening a regional "counter-terrorism cell" against Boko Haram in N'Djamena, Chad's capital 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the Nigerian border, according to an adviser to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Boko Haram's threat to neighboring countries was highlighted on Wednesday, when some 5,000 insurgents launched simultaneous attacks on border towns in Cameroon, that country's Ministry of Defense said. During the fighting, the militants set off a roadside improvised explosive device that hit a military convoy. They also attacked the main border barracks at Amchide town, the defense statement said.

Cameroonian troops repelled the attacks and killed 116 militants, while losing a sergeant and a lieutenant, it said, adding that Boko Haram must have suffered additional casualties on the Nigerian side caused by Cameroonian artillery fire.

Fighters from Chad, Niger and Cameroon long have been identified among Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria. But residents fleeing Boko Haram now report that Chadian recruits are enforcing Boko Haram's rule in northeast Nigerian border towns in Borno state. People who escaped from Gajigana village, which was attacked a week ago, said fighters they called "Chadian mercenaries" have taken charge of most communities, even sitting in courts to adjudicate local disputes.

"They monitor every movement, all the things we do, the kind of people you meet with," said Kalli Abdullahi, who escaped to Maiduguri this week and spoke to The Associated Press. If residents break the strict Shariah law "they will get you and kill you so as to instill fear in people," he said.

Nigerian government officials confirm that Boko Haram controls 12 of 27 local government areas in Borno state, as well as some in Adamawa and Yobe states. And they long have had camps in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, say experts.

The area where the four countries' borders meet is generally poor and long has been ignored by governments. Desertification has intensified tensions. High unemployment means there are groups of disgruntled youths who are an easy target for Boko Haram recruitment. Across borders, people often belong to the same tribe and speak the same local languages. Boko Haram offers signing bonuses and monthly pay to those who join, say residents.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau long has expressed his international ambitions, saying his group is fighting to make "the entire world" an Islamic state.

Analyst Ely Karmon wrote in a paper for the Terrorism Research Initiative that Boko Haram is "an immediate and infectious regional threat."

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris. Faul reported from Cambridge, England.

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