ISIS just accepted Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance. On March 7, the Nigerian jihadist group, which has killed 11,000 people since 2011 and 6,000 people in 2014 alone, pledged itself to the Islamic State.
Today, an audio recording whose authenticity has confirmed by an official ISIS media arm accepted the Nigerian organisation’s pledge.
As Aaron Zelin, a terrorism researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained to Business Insider on March 10th, ISIS would have to send emissaries to northern Nigeria to work out the terms of the relationship between the groups after accepting Boko Haram’s pledge.
Boko Haram’s domains, which include a self-declared Islamic state in a fairly remote corner of northeastern Nigeria, would become a “valiyat” or province of the caliphate, and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau would assume the title of “vali,” or provincial emir.
ISIS has a few foreign groups from which it’s accepted pledges, including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdisi in the Egyptian Sinai, and groups of fighters in strategic areas of Libya. ISIS has a shura council that dictates the group’s strategic direction, but takes a devolved, hands-off approach on tactical matters. “It’s sort of like centralized decentralization,” Zelin told Business Insider.
But the pledge could have major ramifications even if it doesn’t lead to a close operational relationship.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a leading public authority on violent non-state groups, tweeted: “Reflecting further on Boko Haram’s pledge of bayat to ISIL, I cannot stress enough how significant it is. A real game changer.”
ISIS v. Al Qaeda
ISIS is currently locked in a struggle for jihadist hearts and minds with Al Qeada, the international network from which it violently split in 2013. ISIS has a sectarian vision that depends on the founding of the caliphate, a political, religious, and eschatological project tied to an earthly territorial unit.
Al Qeada doesn’t link its jihadist mission to a currently-existing caliphate, is somewhat less sectarian in its targeting and rhetoric, and comparatively more oriented towards external attacks.
Al Qaeda had strong African affiliates, like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Ansar al-Dine, which took over northern Mali in 2012; and Al Shabaab, which still controls much of the Somali hinterlands.
The Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia is active in Tunisia and Libya and was involved in the attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012. In contrast, ISIS has been limited to a presence in certain cities in Libya that the group has greatly exaggerated in its propaganda, according to Gartenstein-Ross.
The Boko Haram pledge could shift the balance in Africa. “Now ISIS has a much more viable Africa network, which means there’s a greater chance that there will be splinters from organisations like Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Tunisia,” Gartenstein-Ross told Business Insider.
And ISIS gets a piece of good news in a time when it’s showing signs of internal fracture and suffering losses in the Sunni regions of Iraq, most notably in Saddam Hussein’s birthplace of Tikrit. Even though discussions of a Boko Haram-ISIS merger predate ISIS’s recent setbacks, the partnership has started at an opportune time for the Islamic State.
“This was going to be a week where ISIS had a very clear loss of momentum in Iraq and Syria,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “It was finally becoming undeniable that they were in big trouble.”
Accepting Boko Haram’s pledge gives ISIS “territorial options,” along with “the perception that this is a movement on the rise. Even if it’s experiencing losses in other areas now it has something it can point to in terms of its continuing momentum.”
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