Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., speaks at a Heritage Foundation panel on Boko Haram Tuesday (David Uberti/Medill

WASHINGTON – An emerging Islamist organization – largely overlooked by U.S. officials – could give al-Qaida a foothold in central Africa, according to remarks by experts and a freshman lawmaker Tuesday.

Boko Haram, a Nigerian group that bombs churches, targets civilians and threatens American oil imports, is believed to have strong ties to al-Qaida, experts say. At a Tuesday Heritage Foundation panel, Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., called the organization an “emerging threat” to U.S. interests both at home and in Africa.

In only two years, the Nigerian group has evolved from “wielding machetes to a transnational organization capable of conducting coordinated truck bombings against Western targets,” said Meehan, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.

Boko Haram means “Western education is sacrilege” in the central African Hausa language.

Nigeria is the largest American trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, providing 8 percent of all U.S. oil imports. And the radical group’s almost-daily attacks are a looming threat to a continued supply of petroleum from the country’s oil-rich south.

Recent Boko Haram attacks

June 25, 2011 – Motorcyclists lobbed bombs into a beer garden in northwest Nigeria, killing as many as 30.

Aug. 26, 2011 – Car bombing at the U.N.’s Nigerian headquarters kills at least 23.

Nov. 4 ,2011 – Linked attacks on police stations, churches and banks in northeast Nigeria leave at least 100 dead.

Dec. 25, 2011 – Church in capital city of Abuja is bombed, killing 37.

Jan. 20, 2012 – Coordinated bombings in northern city of Kano target police stations, killing at least 186 police and civilians.

March 4, 2012 – Two gunmen strike in northeast Nigeria, killing four. The dead include a middle-aged woman and her 10-year-old son.

Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International 

Ricardo Laremont, a political science professor at Binghamtom University, said a full-blown Boko Haram insurgency could hamstring U.S. oil imports – quite a danger given skyrocketing gas prices. The threat is largely due to the organization’s increasingly well-armed, well-trained forces.

“How do you go from drive-by shootings of police officers to the detonation of 30 roadside bombs in January?” Laremont said. “That information was not generated internally, but must have been acquired elsewhere. And that elsewhere…has to be [al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb].”

Boko Haram went largely unnoticed by U.S. lawmakers until the group claimed responsibility for an August car bombing on the U.N’s Nigerian headquarters that killed 23.

Officials’ interest quickly grew when a November subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence report – co-authored by Meehan – highlighted the group’s possible connections to  both al-Qaida and al-Shabab.

Al-Qaida, the group formerly directed by Osama bin Laden, is affiliated with a number of regional “franchise” organizations: Somalia’s al-Shabab, Algeria’s al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb and Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula among them.

Boko Haram’s evolving tactics – including increased use of improvised explosive devices – closely mirror those of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistani Taliban, the report said.

The State Department urged the Nigerian government Monday  to tackle the growing insurgency, Reuters reported. The U.S. is attempting to open a consulate in the northern city of Kano, which has been a frequent target of attacks.

“It is about security, it is about development, it is about jobs,” Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said earlier this week. “Together we will do whatever we can, from intelligence sharing, to assistance, to development, to security training.”

The U.S. currently has no diplomatic presence in the northern regions of Africa’s most populous country, something that must change, Laremont said.

It will be impossible, he added, to ensure stability in Nigeria and quash a potential al-Qaida ally without U.S. eyes and ears on the ground.

CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE: Nigeria was the fifth-leading supplier of crude oil to the U.S. crude 2011. Source: U.S. Independent Energy Administration (David Uberti/Medill)

“Simply resorting to what we do well is not the answer,” Laremont said. “We can continue to have military partnerships…but it is more urgent to have a diplomatic presence in the north. It is more urgent to help Nigerians in intelligence training.”

The experts and Meehan agreed that Boko Haram currently poses little threat to U.S. soil. But Meehan  was quick to point out that little heed was paid to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula before the failed “underwear bomber” in Detroit on Christmas 2009.

The main danger of Boko Haram is still to the Nigerian people, and to U.S. energy interests. A series of coordinated bombings on Jan. 20 killed at least 185 people in Kano, according to Human Rights Watch.

Meehan emphasized al-Qaida’s influence on such a radical group, saying that such sway could lead to increased targeting of American interests and diplomatic personnel.

“You have a group driven by larger global ambitions – jihadist ambitions,” Meehan said. “The [Nigerian] energy sector is so significant… it would be very simple for the extension for some of their activities to find targets in the energy sector.”