Boko Haram's claim of responsibility for a recent kidnapping of more than 300 students in Nigeria's northwestern state of Katsina signals that the militant group is expanding its terror activities beyond its traditional stronghold in the West African country's northeast, experts warn.
On December 11, Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in an audio recording that his group was behind the abduction of the schoolboys in the town of Kankara in Katsina. The students, however, were released several days after being abducted by gunmen.
The militant group also released a video showing some of the students before their release.
Regardless of whether Boko Haram was responsible for the kidnappings, some experts say the incident represents a worrying sign for stability and security in northern Nigeria.
Shekau "has been able to claim it and that is in part because northwest Nigeria has been facing a simmering security crisis over the last year," said Daniel Eizenga, an expert on violent extremism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
In recent months, northwestern Nigeria has witnessed growing intercommunal violence, including conflict between herders and farmers, violent crime from bandits, and initial indications that extremist groups may be gaining ground in the area.
"Within this complicated context of rising insecurity, it is possible for Boko Haram to appear more dangerous and expansive than it may actually be," Eizenga told VOA.
He added that "should the trajectory of northwest Nigeria follow a similar path as the northeast, much of northern Nigeria will have become embroiled in a security crisis that has been simmering for the better part of the past decade."
Boko Haram, which has been fighting to create an Islamic state based in Nigeria, has killed 36,000 people and displaced millions since it began its insurgency a decade ago.
Despite carrying out terror attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger – mostly in the Lake Chad Basin – the group's activities inside Nigeria have largely remained limited to its stronghold in the northeast.
While the Nigerian government hasn't confirmed whether Boko Haram was responsible for kidnapping students in Katsina, experts say there are several hypotheses for a possible Boko Haram presence in Nigeria's northwest.
"One is that a faction of Boko Haram might well have contracted with a criminal gang to carry out the kidnapping without actually doing it itself," said John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"Another hypothesis is that Boko Haram simply claimed responsibility (for the kidnapping) as part of a propaganda initiative," he told VOA, adding that another "possibility of course is that indeed Boko Haram has become active in the northwest."
However, Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, stressed that "if we're going to talk about Boko Haram being active in the northwest, I think we need some evidence of a political or ideological dimension."
Other jihadist groups have in the past carried out attacks in northwest Nigeria. For example, the Ansaru, a Boko Haram breakaway group, has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the area in 2020.
The recent developments in the northwest should be "a cause for the Nigerian security forces to redouble their efforts in the region, especially with regards to intelligence," said Gbenga Akinbule, a Nigerian affairs analyst.
The fact that Boko Haram might be present in the northwest requires a serious response from the Nigerian military, he said.
"Our security forces should go back there to clean up and see how best they can get to look at the dangerous trend that is happening," Akinbule told VOA.
Analyst Eizenga disagrees.
"Approaching the growing insecurity in the northwest with heavy-handed operations that neutralize militants and destroy their camps is unlikely to resolve the main drivers of these different security threats," he said.
Eizenga suggested that the Nigerian government needs "to work closely with local communities to develop differentiated responses to the threats they are facing."
In late 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his military had "technically defeated" Boko Haram militants in the country.
VOA Hausa Service's Sani Malumfashi contributed to this story from Katsina, Nigeria.