As Boko Haram awaits acceptance of its pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, experts are weighing the implications of an alliance between the terror groups. While most agree that both stand to reap propaganda gains, it is not yet clear that Boko Haram will receive the kind of logistical and operational support from ISIS that it so desperately needs in the face of a new regional force tasked with eliminating it.
Boko Haram, the Nigerian insurgent group, probably has its eyes on additional manpower and support from an ISIS alliance. But there is unlikely to be much logistical interaction between the two groups, said Richard Barrett, the senior vice president at the Soufan Group in New York. Instead, the Nigerian militants can expect an image boost from the much more coherent and disciplined philosophy they would gain as members of ISIS’ self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. “If the Islamic State can introduce a more appealing, finished ideological approach than the one Boko Haram has at the moment, it could lift [Boko Haram] from being a small, local, albeit thuggish and powerful criminal group, to something a bit grander with broader vision,” Barrett said.
Boko Haram’s efforts to shift its image more in line with ISIS’ has become evident through its evolving media strategy, which has become much more sophisticated in recent weeks with slickly produced videos and a new Twitter account. Leader Abubakar Shekau announced the group’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS in an audio message posted to the Twitter feed Saturday, in which he urged loyalty to the “Caliph of the Muslims,” a reference to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Speaking in Arabic, Shekau said the pledge was intended to bring the two groups together “under one umbrella” to “fight the unbelievers.”
From a propaganda perspective, Shekau’s pledge is a boost for ISIS, which has been facing its own military challenges that have stalled its expansion, said Barrett. “It suggests to others the projection of power and influence beyond the Arab world,” he said. “It’s aspirational for them and will only increase the sense that their caliphate is bigger than it looks.”
The Islamic State group has carved out swathes of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, including strongholds like the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul, where it has imposed its radical version of Islamic law.
Since its rapid seizure of territory last summer, ISIS’ campaign has come up against a U.S.-led coalition aimed at halting the militant group’s regional advance. Additionally, the group has been facing setbacks from within, including dissent, defections and unsuccessful attempts to recruit local fighters, according to a report by the Washington Post this week. These challenges have undermined ISIS’ image of invincibility, probably making Boko Haram’s pledge a welcome reinforcement.
Boko Haram is also facing major challenges from an African Union-authorized regional task force that has been gaining ground in recent weeks. In light of that struggle, Boko Haram’s pledge to ISIS could be “an attempt at seeking quick fixes to two areas they are currently struggling with, namely, recruitment and access to arms,” said Veryan Khan, the editorial director of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium intelligence group, in an email. “The pledge does seem like an outcry for immediate help.”
A key factor in Boko Haram’s past military success has been its ability to range across borders in the area around northeastern Nigeria, which abuts Chad, Cameroon and Niger. “One of the things that the military counteroffensive has achieved in the past few days is to hold the border areas more tightly,” said Richard Downie, a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The unprecedented military cooperation among the neighboring nations, with Nigerien and Chadian troops crossing into Nigerian territory to launch attacks, has “degraded the capacity of Boko Haram to be as nimble and fluid” in its operations as before, he said.
Boko Haram’s weakness in the face of this regional force will also further hinder the kinds of campaigns it has been waging to capture cities like Maiduguri, leading to a retreat to more asymmetric kinds of warfare such as suicide bombings, said Downie. Ahead of its ISIS pledge, the group targeted the city with four suicide bomb attacks, which killed at least 54 people and wounded 143, according to the Guardian. Having to rely on such “hit and run tactics” is a sign of the group’s scaled-down ambitions, said Downie, who added that additional manpower would boost its drive to capture Maiduguri.
ISIS, however, won't want to share its manpower at the moment, Downie argued. “The Islamic State has enough on its hands now in establishing a caliphate in the Middle East, so obviously that is going to be more of the priority,” he said. “I doubt there’s going to be a huge amount of spare capacity, personnel or otherwise to be deploying fighters and resources to northern Nigeria.”