Daily Archives: January 31, 2012

McDermott signs agreement for spool base services in Gulf of Mexico

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HOUSTON – McDermott International, Inc. says it has signed a 10-year frame agreement with Helix Subsea Construction, Inc. for spool base services in the Gulf of Mexico.

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“This agreement allows McDermott, when contracting with Helix, to offer full-service, shore-based pipeline stalking and spooling services from Helix’s premier 120-acre Gulf of Mexico spool base at Ingleside, Texas, to pursue deepwater and ultra-deepwater installation projects,” explained Stephen M. Johnson, chairman of the board, president and CEO, McDermott.

“By combining Helix’s established spool base services with McDermott’s state-of-the-art welding technology to support our newest subsea construction vessels and expanding subsea engineering resources, we can further offer full-service engineering, procurement, construction and installation for deepwater and ultra-deepwater subsea projects for Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic customers.”

Through the cooperation agreement, McDermott would fabricate the required mile-long stalks at Ingleside, and employ its own in-house automatic welding equipment, technology and technicians. The company says that these facilities and personnel will enable it to meet the stringent welding criteria required for deepwater subsea pipelines. The spool base is also designed for fabrication of pipeline end terminations, pipeline end manifolds, subsea manifolds and jumpers.

McDermott’s subsea construction vessels North Ocean 102 (“NO102”) and new-build lay vessel North Ocean 105 (“LV105”), due to be completed later this summer, both have reel-lay capabilities. LV105 is designed to lay both flexible and rigid pipe up to 16-in. diameter, with tension and hang-off clamp capacities of 440 tons and 550 tons, respectively. NO102 offers flexible and umbilical installation and is equipped with a 330-ton low squeeze pressure single tensioner and high capacity carousel.

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McDermott says it will employ strict welding procedures, advanced welding technology and technical experts to meet or exceed client welding criteria for deepwater subsea pipelines, from the Ingleside-based spool facility. Photo courtesy of Helix Subsea Construction, Inc.

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Hundreds of slaughtered civilians isn’t a "huge number" for Obama

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United States, Washington: US President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 30, 2012. (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

Published: 31 January, 2012, 22:08

On Monday afternoon, Barack Obama became the first president to host a virtual town hall live on the Internet.

While that might be a feat worthy of the record books, President Obama did something else during his address that America has become accustomed to: he lied to the world.

Speaking Monday during a live web-chat hosted by Google, the president took on a series of issues submitted by the American people. Over the span of 45 minutes, President Obama addressed the Stop Online Piracy Act while refusing to side with either end of the argument, admitted to the world that he isn’t all that swell of a dancer and took a query from a professional puppeteer. In between ignoring the real issues or offering any sort of solid solution to the nation’s biggest problems, the president did put something rather important out for the world to ponder: America’s ongoing drone missions aren’t really all that bad.

If you ask anyone outside of the Oval Office — or especially America — they might tell you otherwise.

Tackling a question posed on drone strikes, President Obama defended the ongoing missions on Monday, saying they were necessary to target terrorists in a most effective manner. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in,” the president said on the topic of drones. While an argument could easily be made that operating drone missions in lieu of putting boots on the ground is best for the US Armed Forces, the president put a lot on the line Monday when he downplayed the result of the strikes.

Those drone attacks, carried out by unmanned aircraft controlled thousands of miles away, don’t do a lot of harm, said the president. According to Obama, drones had

 “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” and he added that it’s “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”

How small is that not-so huge number? If you ask anyone outside of the American intelligence community, they’ll tell you it is in the hundreds.

But what’s a few hundred civilian deaths, right?

Obama suggested that continuing the drone program would not be detrimental to the safety of foreign citizens, but studies conducted outside of the US say otherwise. Last summer, the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism argued that since America began drone strikes, at least 385 civilians had been executed in US-led attacks. Of those statistics, the Bureau added that around half of the dead were children under the age of 18.

If you don’t take the word of foreign reporter’s, even American intelligence can confirm that the “not a huge number” statistic might be a bit of an exaggeration. One senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity added to CNN last year that CIA drone strikes had taken the lives of 50 civilians in all. As drone strikes go unreported and deaths unaccounted for, the actual number, unfortunately, is probably much higher than what either the CIA or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can come up with. In a single strike last March, 26 Pakistanis were killed during a US strike over Islamabad. Once all deaths were accounted for, it was revealed that over a dozen of the deaths in that single raid were suffered by innocent civilians.

When the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released their findings last year, they said that the number of civilians killed in US drone strikes were probably 40 percent higher than what the US was actually reporting. Between 2004 and 2011, they put the estimate of civilian deaths at a figure of 385, but added in the research that the toll could actually come close to tallying 775 casualties.

Which, if you ask President Obama, is not a huge number.

If 775 isn’t a huge number, than 56 is practically a fraction. That’s the number of children executed by US drones in the first 20 months of the Obama administration.

“Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many,” responded Unicef to the news at the time.

In 2009 alone, almost 600 civilians were killed on the ground in Afghanistan, and the United Nations put 60 percent of that figure as a direct result of airstrikes, drone or otherwise. In Pakistan, civilians say they are terrified of the robotic planes and the damage that they have already done. “There was not a single Taliban militant in Pakistan before 9/11 but since we joined this war, we are facing acts of terrorism, bombing and drone strikes,” Movement for Justice leader Imran Khan told the press in 2011.

In Libya, where the United States never even engaged in an official war, according to Obama, American troops launched 145 drone strikes in an attempt to oust the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in a matter of months. As with most drone missions, the Department of Defense has not released any official statistics on what casualties were caused by the strikes.

Regardless of what damage a drone strike can have on enemy insurgents, experts say that the toll visited on civilians is several times that of militants. In a 2009 report from the Brookings Institute, Senior Fellow Daniel L Byman wrote that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”

In Pakistan where drone strikes have become practically commonplace, civilians are terrified that they will become the next accidental target of American aircraft. Saadullah, a teenage boy who spoke with a BBC reporter last year, lost both of his legs in drone strikes. Three of his relatives, all civilians, have also been killed by American strikes. Asghar Khan, an elder in Islamabad that also spoke to BBC, said three of his relatives were also shot down in airstrikes.

“My brother, my nephew and another relative were killed by a drone in 2008,” said Khan. “They were sitting with this sick man when the attack took place. There were no Taliban.”

A decade after the US began so-called cooperation with Pakistani intelligence, anti-American sentiments continue to grow as do the number of casualties. “When we intervene in people’s countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us,” counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen tells the Brookings Institute.

Now as the US puts surveillance drones over the skies of Iraq even after that war has officially ended, yet another country is becoming concerned that drones will drop bombs on their own civilians. “We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” 37-year-old café owner Hisham Mohammed Salah told the New York Times just this week. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”

Under the Pentagon’s new revised budget, the US will phase out around 100,000 military staffers while adding droves of drones to its already established arsenal of robotic planes. Will drones soon become the United States’ not-so-secret weapon and phase out its Armed Forces personnel entirely? It’s not out of the question. After all, a drone strike authorized by Obama last year led to the death of two American citizens with alleged terrorist ties.

Don’t worry, though. Obama says these things are kept on a tight leash. Who actually pulls on that is as good of a guess as anyone’s, though. In November, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the “signature” strikes that account for most of the CIA’s drone missions only end up on the desk of the president after they are carried out. The US must only inform Pakistan of those strikes, by the way, if they believe the death toll will exceed 20.

Which really isn’t that big of a number either.

Source – RT

USA: Cal Dive Wins USD 25 Million Offshore Decommissioning Contract

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Cal Dive International, Inc. announced today that it has been awarded a Field Abandonment and Decommissioning Contract from an operator in the Gulf of Mexico which includes the abandonment of sixteen wells, seven pipelines, and the removal of eight structures.

The contract is expected to generate total revenue of approximately $25 million and will utilize two of the Company’s key assets. Work on this project will commence in the first quarter of 2012 and is expected to be completed by the end of June 2012.

Quinn Hébert, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cal Dive, stated, “We are pleased to announce the award of our first decommissioning program in the Gulf of Mexico for 2012. We expect 2012 to be an active year for salvage work in the Gulf of Mexico as regulators encourage producers to remove idle iron. This project highlights Cal Dive’s ability to provide full service solutions to our clients.”

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USA: Anadarko Contracts ENSCO 8506 Semi

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Ensco plc has entered into a contract for ENSCO 8506 semisubmersible drilling rig with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. The initial contract term is for two and one-half years in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico at a day rate of $530,000, plus cost adjustments. The contract adds more than $480 million to revenue backlog.

Delivery of ENSCO 8506 from Keppel FELS Limited shipyard in Singapore is scheduled for third quarter 2012 followed by contract commencement in fourth quarter 2012 once mobilization, sea trials and acceptance testing have been completed.

Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Rabun was pleased with the contract, “We are very pleased that Anadarko has chosen to contract a third ENSCO 8500 Series® rig for its drilling programs. Anadarko was an early advocate of the ENSCO 8500 Series® design and contracted ENSCO 8500 back in 2005.”

ENSCO 8500 commenced operations in 2009, and soon thereafter, drilled Anadarko’s major Lucius Discovery in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. In October 2011, Anadarko contracted ENSCO 8505 as part of a rig sharing agreement with Apache and Noble Energy. ENSCO 8505 is scheduled to commence operations in the second quarter of this year.

Last of seven

ENSCO 8506 is the final of seven rigs in the ENSCO 8500 Series®. For the first three quarters of 2011, these rigs that have operated in Asia, North America and South America achieved 97% utilization. Ensco is ranked #1 in overall customer satisfaction and #1 in deepwater drilling by EnergyPoint, an independent survey firm.

The proprietary design of the ENSCO 8500 includes a 35,000’ nominal rated drilling depth, 2 million pounds of hoisting capacity, 8,000 tons of variable deck load and an open layout well suited for subsea completion activities. Improved visibility from the open deck configuration also enhances safety.

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USA: Deep Down Inc. Receives Subsea Equipment Orders

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Deep Down, Inc. , an oilfield services company specializing in complex deepwater and ultra-deepwater oil production distribution system support services, today announced it has been awarded multiple contracts for subsea hardware and deployment equipment orders worth in excess of $2.6 million.

Two orders were placed by a major controls OEM and the third order placed by an international installation contractor.

Deep Down, Inc. will be manufacturing Umbilical Termination Assemblies (UTA), Flying Leads, Umbilical Termination Heads (UTH), Rapid Deployment Cartridges, Moray® and Flying Lead Deployment Frames; the majority of the work is scheduled to be completed in the first quarter 2012, with the remainder completed in the beginning of the second quarter 2012. The products and equipment will be used on three international projects in the Far East and Mediterranean and one project in the Gulf of Mexico.

The patent-pending Moray® Termination System contains a light-weight and compact termination head and very flexible steel tube bundle allowing for easy make up of the heads by the ROV on the ocean floor.

Ron Smith, Chief Executive Officer stated, “These awards continue to build upon Deep Down’s expansion into the international oil and gas market. Deep Down continues to gain recognition outside of the Gulf of Mexico as a solution provider. By working with our customers, we are able to provide them with innovative cost effective solutions for their offshore projects.”

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Special Report: Before We Thank Iran’s Tanker Fleet…

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1/31/2012 @ 4:02PM

With sanctions currently the U.S. tool of choice for thwarting Iran’s terror networks and nuclear ambitions, the good news is that U.S. lawmakers are crafting new measures to cast a wider net. Let’s hope that this time they don’t leave a hole big enough for an Iranian oil tanker to sail right through.

Make that a fleet of oil tankers. Despite the many sanctions now targeting Iran’s regime,  and bedeviling Iran’s national merchant fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), Iran’s main tanker fleet has so far remained exempt.

If the aim is to contain and pressure Iran’s regime, this is no small omission. Iran’s main tanker fleet is owned by a company called NITC, formerly the National Iranian Tanker Company. Headquartered in Tehran, NITC ranks as the world’s fourth largest operator of very large crude carriers, according to a leading London-based shipping information service, Lloyd’s List, which reports that last year NITC was responsible for transporting 53 million tons of crude oil.

Currently, NITC’s web site lists a fleet of 39 tankers, which it uses to carry Iranian oil, and also charters out on the international market. NITC serves Iran not only as a vehicle for moving petroleum, but for enjoying business access and networking opportunities. In its chartering activities, NITC says it aims, among other things, to “build close relationships with reputable charters and shipbroking firms,” and call at “a wide variety of global ports and terminals.” NITC describes itself on its web site as employing more than 3,000 staff, including 2,500 seafaring personnel, of whom about 85% are Iranian nationals.

NITC tankers call freely at ports from Europe to the Far East. Within the past five weeks, for instance, an NITC tanker, the Sepid, has called at the Greek port of Piraeus; two more NITC tankers, the Saveh and the Sarvestan, have called at the Dutch port of Rotterdam, where NITC keeps an office.

This week, NITC top management appears to be going through an upheaval. On Tuesday, news broke that NITC’s longtime chairman and managing director, Mohammad Souri, had suddenly stepped down after 26 years at the helm. Reuters reports that he sent out a letter, saying he has retired, but he will continue to serve NITC as an “adviser and supporter.” The new head of NITC will be a former Iranian transportation minister, Hamid Behbahani, who has recently been serving as a transportation adviser to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There is speculation in the shipping press that this shuffle at NITC may be related to the looming possibility of U.S. sanctions on the company. The Senate Banking Committee has been considering whether to include NITC in new sanctions legislation due for a vote this Thursday.

NITC officials have been protesting that it makes no sense for the U.S. to sanction them. They say that while NITC was once owned by Iran’s state oil company, NITC was privatized 12 years ago and is “not a state company,” as NITC’s commercial director, Habibolah Seyedan told Reuters last week. He also said that NITC has no links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC. Since the U.S. blacklisted the IRGC in 2007 for its role in Iran’s proliferation activities, both U.S. and European Union sanctions authorities have targeted a growing number of IRGC-related entities linked to Iran’s terror and proliferation networks.

NITC officials have been talking up their professionalism, good safety record, multi-billion dollar investments in their fleet and ties within the global oil and shipping industries. NITC’s newly retired chairman, Mohammad Souri, has for years been racking up international shipping awards. Last December, at a ceremony in Dubai, Lloyd’s List named Souri its Tanker Operator of the Year, for the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent. In 2010, a U.K.-based maritime networking firm, Seatrade, honored Souri in London as its Personality of the Year. After that ceremony, Souri gave an interview to a shipping information service, IHS Fairplay, in which he said, “We are a tanker company, transporting energy for people around the world; we should be thanked, rather than having sanctions.”

Before U.S. lawmakers rush to thank NITC, however, they might want to ask just how many degrees of separation actually distance NITC and its officials from Iran’s regime and the IRGC.

Congressional investigators could start with a closer look at NITC’s ex-chairman, now slated to be its supporter and adviser, Mohammad Souri. Fluent in English, well-traveled and familiar with America and its ways, Souri for more than a quarter of a century has been the human face of NITC. But however great his official distance from the Tehran regime and IRGC, Souri has long occupied a position of trust within the system they have created. In transporting Iran’s oil, NITC plays an important part in the oil supply chain that sustains the Tehran regime and fuels an Iranian economic-political-military complex in which the IRGC plays an increasingly pervasive part.

Educated initially in Iran, Souri then studied in the U.S. in the late 1970s, during the final years of the Shah. While running an international freight company registered in 1976 in New York, he earned a Batchelor’s of Science degree from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1979. That was the year Ayatollah Khomeini took power with Iran’s Islamic revolution. That same year, Souri returned to Iran, and before the year was over he had landed a post as a deputy minister in the new Islamic government’s Ministry of Commerce. Exact dates vary from one version of Souri’s biography to the next, but within a mere three years, he had become chairman and managing director of Iran’s  IRISL merchant fleet.

By 1986, the Islamic government had moved Souri to what was arguably an even more important job, as chairman and managing director of NITC, then a subsidiary of the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). That was during the 1984-1988 Iran-Iraq tanker war, in which Iran’s tanker fleet operated in close coordination with both Iran’s regular navy and the IRGC’s parallel navy — which was then developing the kind of speedboat guerrilla tactics Iran uses today to harass U.S. naval ships in the Gulf.

In 2000, Iran’s government “privatized” the NITC, transferring its ownership from the state oil company, NIOC, to a number of Iranian pension funds. Congressional investigators might want to explore the extent to which that arrangement actually qualifies as a private sector deal. In a 2008 confidential U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks, an American official writing about NITC noted that “67% of the company’s equity is controlled by the Iranian state employee and oil industry employee retirement funds.”

Souri stayed on as head of NITC, resigning a directorship he had held for years on the NIOC board. But under his chairmanship, the NITC board has looked a lot like a NIOC alumni club. Two of the other six directors listed on the NITC web site are former senior officials of NIOC. A third is a former official of the London office of a Tehran-based entity called Kala Naft, which the U.S. government identified in 2010 as wholly owned by NIOC. Last year, when NITC was less shy about its relationship with state-owned NIOC, its web site included a list of its “missions.” Among them were: “Providing marine services to NIOC oil rigs and offshore platforms…Hire of required vessels to International Markets for NIOC…Chartering new vessels on behalf of NIOC affiliated companies.”

NIOC itself, which U.S. lawmakers have also been considering as a sanctions target, is supervised by Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum. Since last summer, the man heading that ministry has been Rostam Qasemi, an IRGC general. Qasemi was blacklisted in 2010 by both the U.S. Treasury and the European Union for serving as head of a huge  IRGC business conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbiya.

Then there’s the issue of banking. In an interview last January with Bloomberg news service,  NITC’s area manager in the United Arab Emirates, Rahmat Ghareh, mentioned that in the UAE, NITC for its financial transactions was using a branch of Iran’s Bank Saderat. That might be of interest to U.S. lawmakers, because in 2007 the U.S, government blacklisted Bank Saderat “for providing services to terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah.”

If, as reported, former transportation minister Behbahani is now taking the NIOC helm, is this picture likely to improve? Behbahani is a longtime ally of Ahmadinejad, and by some accounts served years ago as Ahmadinejad’s thesis adviser. In 2009, following the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators protesting Ahmadinejad’s rigged reelection, Ahmadinejad appointed Behbahani as transportation minister. On Behbahani’s watch, the transportation ministry awarded a road-building contract worth billions to the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya, the same outfit that has been headed by current oil minister Qasemi.

A year ago, Iran’s parliament impeached Behbahani as transportation minister, amid charges of inefficiency, and following major airplane and train accidents on his watch. Ahmadinejad denounced the impeachment as “illegal,” and made Behbahani his transportation adviser. In that role, Behbahani accompanied Ahmadinejad on a trip this January to see Iran’s pals in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba and Venezuela –  an excursion that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dubbed a “Tour of Tyrants.”

Is there anything in all this that might warrant sanctions on NITC? Maybe lawmakers can take their pick.

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Treaty Energy’s Oil Claim Bogus

Treaty Energy’s Oil Claim Bogus | FiWeBelize.

2012 Special Report: Boko Haram – between rebellion and jihad

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By Joe Brock
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria | Tue Jan 31, 2012 9:25am EST

(Reuters) – At about 10.40 one morning last August, Mohammed Abul Barra rammed his ash-colored station wagon into a security gate outside the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, knocking it off its hinges. Barra’s 1996 Honda Accord then crashed through the main building’s glass doors and slammed against the reception desk.

On security tapes of the incident seen by Reuters, a guard peers into the car, evidently unaware that it is packed with explosives. The grainy footage shows a dozen or so people in the reception edge towards the vehicle. Over 10 seconds pass in confusion before one man seemingly realizes what is about to happen. He grabs the person next to him and darts towards the lift. But it’s too late. Barra steadies himself, leans forward and the security screens blur into white fuzz.

The suicide strike left 25 people dead and the U.N. headquarters in tatters. It also drew global attention to Boko Haram, the militant group from northern Nigeria which has claimed responsibility for the attack and a string of bombings since then that has killed hundreds.

As the bombings have grown in frequency in recent months, the Nigerian government and Western security officials have begun to grapple with the exact nature of the threat. Is Boko Haram just the latest in a long list of violent spasms in Nigeria, or is it the next battalion of global jihadists, capable of thrusting Africa’s most populous nation into civil war?

The answer to that is not simple. There is evidence – some of it detailed in this story for the first time – that elements of Boko Haram have received training from foreign militant groups, including North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The August attack was far more sophisticated than anything linked to Boko Haram before.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan calls the group a terrorist organization with global ambitions. In an interview in his presidential villa last week, Jonathan said there was “no doubt” Boko Haram has links with jihadist groups outside Nigeria. General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said last year Boko Haram posed a threat to U.S. and Western interests.

At the same time, Boko Haram remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian issues. When its secretive spokesman claims responsibility for attacks, he almost always lists local grievances that have little to do with the core ideologies of al Qaeda. The group’s name means “Western education is sinful” in Hausa, the language spoken in northern Nigeria, the country’s Muslim heartland. But its anger is directed not at America or Europe but at Nigeria’s elites: at their perceived arrogance, their failure to deliver services, and the brutality of their security forces. Many Boko Haram members say their focus is on targeting officials who have locked up its members or misused state funds.

Even Nigeria’s national security adviser, General Owoye Azazi, who sees a link between Boko Haram and AQIM, urges caution in defining the group.

“We need to tackle Boko Haram from several perspectives,” Azazi said in an interview. “If you go back to history, there are religious concerns, there are concerns about governance, and of course, political implications. It’s a combination of so many things.”

FORENSIC TRAIL

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived in Abuja within days of last August’s attack to help with forensic analysis of the bomb site. A report authored by those agents, Nigerian authorities and independent security teams, paints a portrait of a sophisticated operation.

Barra was chosen because he was “low profile (and) well trained” and his attack was “well planned,” says the confidential report, seen by Reuters. The car was packed with 125 kg (276 pounds) of manufactured explosives, including the plastic explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and triacetone triperoxide (TATP) – both highly powerful and volatile, and more potent than easier-to-build fertilizer-based explosives.

The explosives were used in a “shaped charge,” which increases damage from a blast. Investigators believe the bomb probably consisted of both stolen factory-made explosives and home-made materials.

“The only form of PETN that is commonly available is the core explosive in detonating cord,” said Sidney Alford, a British explosives expert. “You can get detonating cord from the manufacturers, the army, or from blasting contractors in the demolition or quarrying industries.”

The failed ‘underpants’ bomber Faroup Abdulmutallan, a Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 in an al Qaeda-style attack, used TATP. Another would-be plane bomber, Richard Reid, had PETN in his shoe in his unsuccessful effort to blow up a flight between France and the United States in 2001.

President Jonathan said Nigeria has evidence that Boko Haram members have held meetings in North Africa. Azazi, the national security adviser, said the advancement in Boko Haram’s weaponry and tactics points to help and training from outside groups.

“We have evidence of meetings between Boko Haram leadership and outside groups,” Azazi said, declining to give details. “We have evidence that some Boko Haram leaders are trained outside of Nigeria. Their methods, their bomb-making technologies – who taught them?”

MILITANT BEGINNINGS

Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, survived a brutal civil war in the late 1960s in which more than 1 million people died. Repeated rounds of violence since then, often between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, have killed thousands more.

The violent spasms are often fueled by politics, and so it is with Boko Haram.

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” It earned its nickname from the teachings of its founder Mohammed Yusuf in the early 2000s, in the restive northeastern city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.

Yusuf argued that Western education, or “boko,” had brought nothing but poverty and suffering to the region and was therefore forbidden, or “haram,” in Islam. He began peacefully – mostly preaching – and quickly gained a following among disaffected young men in the northeast. But his anti-establishment rhetoric and hints that Boko Haram was building an arsenal of weapons also caught the attention of the authorities.

In 2009, the police clamped down on sect members who were ignoring a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. That sparked a furious backlash. Police stations and government offices in Borno were burned to the ground, and hundreds of criminals released in a prison break, as the violence spread across northern Nigeria.

The government and army reacted with force; Yusuf was captured and shot dead in police custody. Five days of fighting left some 800 people dead.

Boko Haram leaders still cite Yusuf’s death as one of the main factors driving the insurgency. The group remains fiercely anti-government and anti-authority, and resentful of the decades of corrupt, poor governance that have impoverished its home region.

“You would never have believed the Boko Haram phenomenon came from these beginnings,” said Shettima Dikwa, a doctor at the University of Maiduguri. Dikwa is one of a number of professionals in the city frustrated at the way Nigeria’s government and military have allowed the insurgency to escalate. Like others, he says local politicians sponsored armed thugs to help disrupt the 2007 election and then abandoned them, creating a fertile recruitment field. The governor of Borno state has denied these allegations.

Boko Haram’s attacks have intensified since President Jonathan took power last April, in the country’s cleanest election since the end of military rule in 1999. Jonathan pledged to fight graft and attract investment. But he is a Christian southerner, and in the eyes of many Muslim northerners it was a northerner’s turn to rule.

CATCH-ALL LABEL, LOCAL STRUGGLES

That backdrop doesn’t explain how the group went from drive-by shootings and crude petrol bombs to shaping explosives for suicide missions against the United Nations.

A video posted on YouTube on January 11 suggests the group’s leadership would like to be seen as part of a global jihad. Abubakar Shekau, who has run the group since Yusuf was killed, appears in the 15-minute tape wearing a camouflage bullet-proof jacket, sitting in front of two Kalashnikov rifles. His beard, headscarf and hand gestures recall the style of video pronouncements made by the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But Shekau’s message hits local notes.

“The reason why I am giving this broadcast is the recent comments of Goodluck Jonathan about us and that of the leader of the Christians and other statements by others, describing us as a cancer to Nigeria. We are neither a cancer nor a disease. If people don’t know us, God knows us,” Shekau says. He then goes on to cite common complaints about Nigerian politics.

Most of the public evidence about what Boko Haram wants and how it operates comes from its avowed spokesman, Abu Qaqa, a mysterious figure who often pops up after an attack to claim responsibility and explain the motives.

Speaking by phone to a handful of reporters in Maiduguri in November, Abu Qaqa spoke of the links between al Qaeda and Boko Haram. “We are together with al Qaeda,” he said. “They are promoting the cause of Islam, just as we are doing. Therefore they help us in our struggle and we help them, too.”

But Qaqa offered no concrete details of those ties; the rest of the conversation focused on local issues. He said the group isn’t affiliated with Nigerian political parties and described the sect’s anger at the governor of Borno state. In claiming the recent Kano attacks, which killed at least 186 people, he cited the killing and arbitrary arrest and detention of Boko Haram members.

GLOBAL OR LOCAL?

Nigerian and Western security experts believe a small, increasingly ambitious and sophisticated group of extremists controls the very top of the group. A handful of those members have received training outside Nigeria, including from AQIM.

Nigeria-based security sources who track Boko Haram told Reuters that members of the group have been going to training camps with brigades of Algerian AQIM for the past six years. Small units of five or six members train at a time; no more than a few dozen have been trained in total, the sources said.

The foreign minister of neighboring Niger told Reuters last week that members of Boko Haram received explosives training at AQIM camps in the Sahel region, which runs along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The U.N. Security Council said this month that it had been told that Boko Haram members had received training in AQIM camps in Mali.

Experts say the group has become a convenient cover for opportunists. Criminals, political thugs and gangs hide beneath the umbrella of Boko Haram, making it hard to judge its size and scope.

Most of its foot-soldiers are disillusioned young men who have only loose ties to religious ideology, and are easily drawn in because there are little or no opportunities elsewhere. Jonathan has begun to acknowledge this, telling Reuters last week that the government would “revitalize” northern agriculture to provide jobs for youths who might otherwise be “recruited” by Boko Haram.

Aisha Alkali, a human rights campaigner in Maiduguri, says young men in northern Nigeria feel forced to adopt violence to defend themselves. “If you push people to the wall, if you leave them with nothing and take everything, where will they go?” asks Alkali, shrouded in a traditional black abaya and burka with only her eyes and impeccably manicured hands showing. “You make people something they were not.”

GOVERNMENT CRACKDOWN

Soldiers patrol the streets of Maiduguri in large numbers these days. By day, they hunch in roadside bunkers; at night, they regularly fight with Boko Haram units. Bomb blasts and gunshots punctuate the dark.

Amnesty International says the joint military task force (JTF) in the city has been behind dozens of unlawful killings there, further stirring the unrest. A report by the human rights watchdog says houses have been raided and burned by the JTF.

One of the JTF commanders in Maiduguri told Reuters there had been “excesses,” but said mostly the military were doing a good job under difficult conditions.

Yirami Bwala, a 42-year-old shop owner, lost his 18-year-old son Markus in a Boko Haram bomb attack in Maiduguri in January. “Most Boko Haram members are just a bunch of illiterates who have been misled about their religion and what tolerance is all about,” he said a day after the attack. “The military only make things worse by robbing people and attacking innocent, peaceful people.”

More than a quarter of Nigeria’s 2012 budget has been allocated to security spending. But with the number of attacks up – at least 250 people have been killed in the first three weeks of 2012 alone, according to Human Rights Watch – criticism of the way Jonathan has handled the violence is growing.

FACELESS ENEMY

President Jonathan told Reuters that Boko Haram militants have infiltrated the military, police and his own government. He sacked the chief of police and his six deputies last week, after the key suspect in the Christmas Day bombings escaped less than 24 hours after being arrested, in what Nigerian security sources said were “unusual and suspicious” circumstances.

The leader of the nation of 160 million people has also said that tackling Boko Haram could be worse than Nigeria’s civil war, if only because the enemy is faceless and unknown. Some analysts believe Boko Haram may be targeting Christians to trigger a religious conflict.

Nigeria has been here before. In 2009 it ended a militant insurgency in the southeastern Niger Delta by offering an amnesty. The government hints that a new broad political settlement may be on the cards. But dealing with a splintered and secretive group like Boko Haram will be difficult.

Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president and a southern Christian, visited the family of Boko Haram founder Yusuf last September for peace talks. Days later, gunmen killed Yusuf’s brother-in-law. Boko Haram denied involvement in the killing. But someone wanted the dialogue to end.

(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks, Ibrahim Mshelizza, Felix Onuah, Camillus Eboh and Mike Oboh in Nigeria, William Maclean in London and David Lewis in Dakar; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

Source – (Reuters)

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