March 13, 2015
A Weakened Caliphate Expands
By J. Peter Pham
• The Islamic State accepted Boko Haram’s allegiance, or bay’at, pledged to the Iraq and Syria-based extremist group over the weekend
• Given the recent military setbacks for Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and their increasing convergence, this development is unsurprising and a propaganda victory for both groups
• The alliance may spark an escalation of attacks in northeast Nigeria, as Boko Haram seeks to prove itself to the Islamic State
• The announcement may also internationalize Boko Haram’s fight and draw jihadists to Nigeria from across the Middle East and North Africa.
It is now official: The Islamic State, in an audio release of spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has accepted the pledge of allegiance from Boko Haram. This development is certainly unwelcome news for regional stability but not entirely unexpected given previous cooperation between the two groups over the course of the last year, as well as the severe pressure that the militaries of Nigeria and its neighbors have recently (if somewhat belatedly) brought to bear on it.
Notwithstanding its string of victories through the beginning of this year, Boko Haram has been reeling in recent weeks from a series of military defeats at the hands of the Nigerian armed forces as well as a multinational force from neighboring countries Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. For the first time since the insurgents began seizing towns and holding large sections of the countryside more than two years ago, Nigerian government forces and their regional allies have been pushing back and regaining territory. According to the director-general of Nigeria’s National Intelligence Agency, they have retaken 36 towns and all but four local government areas.
Likewise, the Islamic State has seen its rampage through Syria and Iraq stall and it has increasingly been put on the defensive by operations like the massive Iranian-backed Iraqi offensive to retake Tikrit this past week—more than 75 percent of the town is now under Iraqi control. Thus, for both groups, the new linkage provides a much-needed propaganda victory at just the right moment. At this stage, the Islamic State will take any victory it can get, though it remains to be seen how the group’s prospects in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq will be improved by the new affiliate some 4,000 kilometers to the southwest.
The bay’at, or oath of allegiance, to the so-called Islamic State was accepted on Thursday, according to audio obtained by Agence France-Presse. Interestingly, it has generally taken several weeks—rather than mere days—for Islamic State to welcome similar pledges made by groups now considered aligned with it, including those in Egypt and Libya.
At least in the short term, the merger will not have much immediate impact on the battlefield: the different social and political contexts in which Boko Haram and the Islamic State operate, and the vast geographical distance separating the two groups, mean that each will have to face its foes with little more than moral support from the other, notwithstanding the recent evidence of collaboration in cyberspace.
Being militarily on the defensive for the first time and with the support of his new “Caliph,” one can expect that Abubakar Shekau will engage in even more gruesome tactics in terms of attacks, executions, and further savagery. Boko Haram’s brutality predates that of the Islamic State and arguably has exceeded it in some cases. The upcoming Nigerian elections and potential post-election upheaval provide too rich of a target environment for the violent extremists to pass up.
Over time this alliance might lead to the internationalization of a threat that has until now largely been confined to a single region of Nigeria with occasional spillover into neighboring countries. With the Islamic State having previously accepted the fealty of militant groups in North Africa, there is the risk that fighters from those areas who find it harder to migrate to the Islamic State’s territory in the Levant, may well choose to move to the Boko Haram emirate instead. In fact, the international support that has been recently pouring in for the multinational African force may render that battle all the more attractive to foreign fighters.
On the other hand, Boko Haram’s success as a movement has largely been the result of its denunciations of the Nigerian political elites resonating with the many ordinary citizens as well as its ethnic appeal to the Kanuri population in particular, both of which advantages could be lost as it becomes merely another “province” of the Islamic State.