The ISIS flag was adopted by Boko Haram when it pledged its allegiance
Many had theorized in recent months that at least a rapprochement was occurring between Boko Haram and ISIS. Boko Haram, whose rampage of terror has led to the death of thousands in recent years, had already been effectively conducting attacks on its own. But in recent propaganda videos from the group, there is a stark departure from their usual poor quality footage towards much more slick productions, suggesting that they have at least been taking a page out of ISIS’s media playbook. Furthermore, while Boko Haram had mainly been considered a locally-focused organization up until recently, attacking targets only in its immediate vicinity within Nigeria and along the Nigerian border, it has begun to broaden its messaging by advocating for attacks against the West. Another hint of agreement between the two groups occurred when ISIS used the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria as a precedent for the capture and selling of Christians as slaves within Syria and Iraq. Separately these circumstances might look coincidental, but together, they seemed to suggest at least some sort of ideological collaboration in recent months.
In early March, the fears of a union were ultimately confirmed when the most dominant faction of Boko Haram released a video of its leader Abubakar Shekau pledging fealty to ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi – a pledge that was accepted by ISIS shortly thereafter. While the pledge generated lots of discussion in security and counterterrorism circles, , it may be difficult to ascertain at this point in time whether or not a Boko Haram pledge will improve either side’s military capabilities. Security analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza points out that ISIS has an established network in nearby Libya, which could allow them to share technical expertise with Boko Haram and help them with command and control issues as the latter group is busy fighting a regional coalition against its forces. But others like Fatima Akilu, director of behavioral analysis in Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser, simply don’t see the operational significance of the merger.
What many experts do agree on is that the pledge benefits both groups in other arenas. Boko Haram benefits especially from ISIS’s media capabilities; even before Shekau’s announcement, there had already been clear improvements in the quality of Boko Haram’s propaganda videos, a sign of ISIS involvement. The pledge to join ISIS also enhances its “jihadist credentials” according to Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for Africa at the crisis management firm red24, which could lead to potential African jihadist recruits joining Boko Haram instead of traveling significantly further to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
ISIS, on the other hand, receives a huge propaganda victory from Boko Haram’s fealty. Accepting pledges of loyalty from Boko Haram and other groups across the world fosters an image of an organization that is global and constantly expanding. It costs very little for ISIS to accept pledges of allegiance. Yes, it is likely that those pledging will expect some support in return, but the main branch of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will likely lend support in cheap ways by improving media capacities and providing advice instead of actually providing fighters. Furthermore, accepting pledges of groups like Boko Haram may attract more fighters who will see ISIS’s global rise as a sign of the group’s success.
While it seems that Boko Haram joining ISIS is a propaganda coup for both groups, it also shows that the two groups need something from each other. According to the Daily Beast, “We usually see [Boko Haram] pledging allegiance when they need something or want something.” The group is currently facing a regional coalition of African nations supported by Western military advisers and trainers. While the group still remains strong, it is now facing a more unified and purposeful military opposition compared to previous ineffective and sometimes controversial Nigerian military operations. ISIS likewise remains busy fighting off US and coalition airstrikes as well as Iraqi ground forces. Accepting pledges from groups in other countries like Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt gives the appearance that the group is gaining territory even though it’s not necessarily scoring military victories.
One should also note that it is highly unlikely that Boko Haram will simply melt into the ISIS command structure and eagerly take orders from the ISIS leadership. While Boko Haram and ISIS were already on the same page in terms of brutality, some experts claim that Shekau is a control freak, which means he is “unlikely to allow micromanaging from ISIS leaders thousands of miles away.”
While the ISIS-Boko Haram merger is worrisome, policymakers should take note that just because these groups are flexing their muscles doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting stronger – it merely means they want to look like they are. Just because Boko Haram joined ISIS doesn’t mean that both groups have instantly gotten more powerful, just that they’re both invested in manipulating appearances. What will be more interesting to see as events develop will be whether or not Boko Haram actually follows ISIS orders or simply plays lip service to them. Governments fighting both Boko Haram and ISIS would be wise to exploit any apparent difficulties in the groups’ cooperation if such tensions do in fact appear.