NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Bomb attacks in Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia rose in 2011 as al-Qaida-affiliated terror groups used more sophisticated devices to kill more people with each explosion, the Pentagon's anti-IED unit said.
Nigeria saw a nearly fourfold jump in the number of improvised explosive device incidents last year, while Kenya saw an 86 percent increase, according to the unit. Underscoring the threat, both nations saw deadly blasts last weekend: A car bomb attack on a church during Mass in Nigeria and grenades thrown at Kenyans as they waited at a crowded bus stop.
Militants last year began using a deadlier type of bomb known as a shaped charge for the first time in both Somalia and Nigeria, John Myrick, a U.S. military bomb expert told The Associated Press. Advanced bomb-makers use shaped charges to increase the force of a bomb so that it can penetrate armor.
Such deadly explosives were used repeatedly by militants at the height of the Iraq war, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. The migration of the deadlier bombs to Africa is evidence that more sophisticated al-Qaida-linked groups are advising and training African militants.
While Somalia saw only a small increase in attacks, the newer technology lead to greater casualties and deeper impact on Africa Union forces, Myrick said.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomb attack aimed at the main government compound in Mogadishu killed at least three people, said the spokesman for the African Union force known as AMISOM.
Bombs in Somalia "are definitely more sophisticated and they're definitely more effective against AMISOM armored vehicles, which represents an advance in the capabilities of the insurgents," said Myrick, the chief of the global missions task force for the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.
Myrick said that the more effective bombs and attacks "indicate an increase in logistical support from some of the more sophisticated groups on the continent, and also an increase in training."
Specifically, the anti-IED unit says al-Qaida's North African branch is increasing support to Nigerian militants, and another affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is supporting Somali militant groups.
Nigeria saw 196 bomb incidents in 2011, compared with 52 incidents in 2010, U.S. military numbers show. An incident is when a bomb detonates or is discovered before detonation. The Pentagon's anti-IED unit expects Nigeria to see a slight increase in bomb incidents this year, before attack numbers plateau because militants will have reached their capacity to produce them, Myrick said.
The Joint IED Defeat Organization says militants are increasingly targeting events that will produce mass casualties. A Christmas Day blast that struck St. Theresa Catholic Church near Nigeria's capital killed 44 people.
Nigeria Police Commissioner Ambrose Aisabor, who oversees the Nigeria Police Force's anti-bomb squad, blamed the increase on a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north.
"Since the past two years, the activities of Boko Haram have been on the increase," he told AP. "A lot of IEDs are being detonated in the northeastern part of the country."
Officers with the anti-bomb squad recently returned from a U.S. training session on explosives organized by the U.S. Embassy and the FBI. The FBI already has an agent working with Nigerian authorities on improvised explosives and how to conduct investigations after a bombing, U.S. Ambassador Terence P. McCulley has told AP.
Still, the police force remains mired by ineffective training inside the country, poor equipment and a corrupt system that drives officers to seek bribes on a regular basis.
The poor training was apparent Feb. 14, when a bomb squad officer approached a suspicious plastic bag in the city of Kaduna, where other explosives had detonated that day. Video by the state-run Nigerian Television Authority showed the officer, wearing no protective gear, look inside the bag. The explosives detonated, killing him instantly.
State-run TV aired the video throughout the day, intensifying fears of a public already overwhelmed by Boko Haram violence.
Across Africa, the U.S. military said the number of IED incidents rose from 547 in 2010 to 626 last year, a 14 percent increase. Algeria saw the number of bomb incidents drop from 251 to 137.
Somalia saw a slight rise — from 182 to 191 — while incidents in neighboring Kenya jumped from 14 to 26. Many of Kenya's bomb attacks were near the Somali border and appeared to have been planted by Somali militants al-Shabab.
Kenya also suffered several grenade attacks in its capital. Al-Shabab denied it was behind last weekend's grenade blasts, which killed nine people. The research firm Eurasia Group said if al-Shabab didn't carry out the blasts the attacks show that Kenya faces threats from potentially several terror groups.
Col. Cyrus Oguna, the officer in charge of the Kenyan military forces that moved into Somalia in October, said his troops encountered many IEDs at the beginning of its operation and lost "a couple" soldiers. But he said his forces have since implemented counter-IED strategies, reducing the bomb's frequency and effectiveness.
The commander of AMISOM troops in Somalia said his forces are seeing "improved technology" in IEDs.
"We see a lot in common with what happened and is still happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that for us confirms that the operations of al-Qaida and al-Shabab are the same," Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha said. "We have not started seeing this today. We have seen this for some time."
Al-Shabab announced a merger with al-Qaida earlier this year. Myrick said the alliance won't necessarily net al-Shabab more bomb-making experts, but he said it could open a new funding stream to purchase bomb-making materials.
IEDs are the weapon of choice for terrorists and insurgents the world over because of how easy they are to make. As Myrick said: "An 8-year-old can put together an IED if they try." In addition, IED blasts garner more attention.
"People in the press in general tend to take a more active view of things that go boom instead of things that go bang. Shooting up a refugee camp, while newsworthy, would not get the amount of coverage as an IED in a refugee camp," he said.
"We'll see this problem for decades. JIEDDO's view is that the IED is going to remain the weapon of choice for insurgents and terrorists for at least the next 40 years."
Associated Press reporter Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.