The recent move by Boko Haram’s leader to pledge the jihadist group’s allegiance to ISIS caused widespread alarm and raised concerns that such an alliance would strengthen their ability to cause death and destruction and spread their ideology across the region.
The oath certainly adds another layer to one of the most dangerous and consequential crises in Africa. Boko Haram has already killed thousands of people and jeopardized one of the world’s biggest democratic elections. A partnership with ISIS has the potential to stretch the Islamic caliphate’s borders, foster exchanges in operational expertise, and give both groups access to the other’s streams of revenue.
But it’s unclear what this pledge actually means in practicality and how seriously Boko Haram and ISIS actually take it.
Boko Haram has waged an insurgency in northern Nigeria that’s killed nearly 11,000 people since 2011 and 6,000 people in 2014 alone. On March 7th, Africa’s deadliest jihadist group released an audio tape in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau allegedly pledges the group’s allegiance to ISIS.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, and at 171 million citizens it’s the continent’s most populous country as well. It’s a fragile democracy too, and transitioned away from military rule only 16 years ago.
Boko Haram, which declared its own Islamic state in August of 2014 after taking over parts of northern Nigeria, was the ostensible reason for the postponement of a presidential election scheduled for Feb. 14. Some allege that the vote was delayed because incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan feared losing to opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, himself a former military dictator.
In recent months, it has come under increasing pressure from the Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian militaries, with troops from Chad and Niger crossing into Nigerian territory to attack the group’s positions. And Jonathan has shown an increasing willingness to pursue the jihadist insurgency after a long period of baffling denial and disinterest.
“The Nigerian military in combination with the Chadians have actually had a lot more success than anybody thought they would,” says Ohio University professor and Nigeria scholar Brandon Kenhammer. Boko Haram might be fracturing under this developing pressure and factions within the group may see an alliance with ISIS as a potential lifeline, or a means of undercutting enemies within the group. “I find it plausible that this reflects some kind of underlying problem with respect to Boko Haram’s organizational structure,” says Kendhammer.
At the same time, there were already signs that Boko Haram was edging into the Islamic State’s orbit. Aaron Zelin, a terrorism researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider that in January, Boko Haram’s propaganda began showing greater sophistication and even some evidence of ISIS assistance.
“There were a lot of signs since mid-January that there was a huge change in methodology as well as production quality and capabilities, seemingly out of nowhere,” Zelin explained. “A lot of it is reminiscent of the Islamic State.” The resemblance was close enough for Zelin to write an analysis on the topic.
In order to upgrade that existing relationship, Zelin says that ISIS would need to formally accept Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance and then send emissaries to northern Nigeria to work out the terms of the relationship. If accepted, Boko Haram’s domains would become a “valiyat” or province of the caliphate, and Shekau would assume the title of “vali,” or provincial emir. ISIS has already incorporated affiliate groups into its caliphate, accepting pledges from hardcore jihadist fighters in Libya, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Egyptian Sinai, so there’s a rough model for how an affiliation would work.
Zelin’s doubtful that these operational ties could really amount to much in Boko Haram’s case. He notes that he knows of only one Nigerian foreign fighter surfacing in Iraq and Syria. And while it would be possible for Libya-based ISIS operatives to travel across the Sahara to coordinate with their Boko Haram counterparts, affiliated groups are given broad leeway to make tactical decisions independent of ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State’s Shura Council. “It’s sort of like centralized decentralization,” Zelin says.
Boko Haram’s pledge might not reveal much about the group’s strength. It might not even result in particularly improved ties between the Syrian-based jihadists and their new partners in west Africa.
But it’s still significant that Boko Haram, an incredibly brutal group that’s declared its own Islamic state, is gravitating towards ISIS, rather than Al Qaeda, ISIS’s main competitor for jihadist hearts and minds. “It’s a big coup for the Islamic State in some ways,” says Zelin, “highlighting the resonance of this idea of their so-called caliphate and this broader project.”
The pledge could also get the US more involved in Nigeria, since it might eventually lead to ISIS developing an African front in a populous democratic country.
US security cooperation with Nigeria has been strained. The US has long been concerned that Nigeria’s notoriously undisciplined military would abuse any American military aid and has been hesitant to increase its assistance. The feeling is actually mutual: Nigeria has been suspicious enough of the US to suspend forms of military cooperation, unexpectedly freezing a US military training program in December of 2014.
The US dispatched a team of 80 military personnel to southern Chad in May of 2014 to operate unmanned aerial vehicles assisting in the search for the 200 girls that Boko Haram kidnapped from the village of Chibok the month before.
But Pentagon spokesperson Maj. James Brindle told Business Insider that that deployment ended sometime last year, since the Nigerian government stopped requesting surveillance flights and the mission’s objectives could be “covered through other means.”
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