With thousands of fighters and some parts of northeastern Nigeria under its control, Boko Haram is believed to be the largest jihadi group to pledge fidelity to the Islamic State. But terrorism experts say that the practical significance of the move announced on Saturday is as yet unclear.
Some experts say the pledge, or “bayat”, made by the leader of Boko Haram is a spiritually binding oath, which indicates that the Nigerian Islamist group has agreed to accept the authority of the Islamic State. But as with similar pledges to the Islamic State – also known as ISIS or ISIL – by other extremist groups, there are few details about how much direct control the Islamic State leaders have over their distant proxies.
If confirmed, the agreement with Boko Haram would mirror the steps taken by Islamic State affiliates in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan and beyond. In each case, a group's leaders swore allegiance in a public message posted online. Weeks later, the oath was publicly accepted by the Islamic State.
"It's quite clear that since at least mid-January, the Islamic State has had some level of connection with Boko Haram," said Aaron Y Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute who tracks propaganda by Islamic extremists.
"The key question is whether the Islamic State dispatched individuals from Syria or Iraq or else from Libya, down to northern Nigeria to help out with operations."
Boko Haram is estimated to have up to 6,000 fighters and at least some level of control over about 20,000sq km, of northeastern Nigeria, according to Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for red24, a crisis management group based in Britain, who has been following the group since 2011. Cummings raised questions about the kind of command-and-control structure that could exist between the two groups.
“It seems at the moment that this is a statement that is akin to saying, ‘We are on the same page’,” he said. “But the biggest issue with Boko Haram is that it’s not a homogeneous group and it behaves as different factions. So it’s too early to tell for sure if Boko Haram will fall directly under ISIS command, and to what extent they will act as an ISIS proxy.”
Since its inception, Boko Haram's targets, goals and language have been almost exclusively Nigerian. Moreover, the group's brutality is unlikely to be altered by a new alliance. Paul Lubeck, a Nigeria expert at Johns Hopkins University, said Boko Haram had been practising beheadings and enslavement before the Islamic State.
Lubeck said there was some significance to Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance, if true, because the group had, until now, maintained its autonomy from larger groups like al-Qaeda. But he was unable to say what practical consequences an affiliation with the Islamic State might have.
For roughly 18 months, there have been growing signs of at least links of solidarity between the organisations, as well as suggestions that the Islamic State has been grooming Boko Haram for entry into its network. Last year, Boko Haram’s leader declared his support for the leader of the Islamic State and began using the Islamic State battle hymn as the soundtrack for videos documenting his atrocities.
Analysts have also noted a growing professionalism in Boko Haram’s videos. The new videos were noticeably more polished and used images that mimicked the visual vocabulary of the Islamic State.
– (New York Times service)