This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the The Jamestown Foundation.
On June 2, Boko Haram released a new video called "Arrival of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in West Africa." A group of armed militants stand in front of two sport utility vehicles with mounted weapons. One delivers a speech attempting to refute reports that Nigerian and neighboring armies have driven Boko Haram out of areas it once controlled. Then, the video shows militants of Boko Haram ambushing Nigerian troops, and then shooting and beheading wounded soldiers. By now, these are "typical" grisly scenes from Boko Haram. There were, however, subtleties in this video that are worthy of additional comment.
The video’s reference to the “Caliphate” in the title is consistent with Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s March 7 pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-declared Islamic State, and al-Baghdadi’s spokesman and ten Islamic State affiliates’ praise of Boko Haram for joining the “Caliphate.” Also, the video’s reference to “West Africa” – instead of Nigeria – is consistent with Islamic State’s renaming of Boko Haram as “Islamic State in West Africa” province. Additionally, a logo on the upper left of the screen and on one of the vehicles shows the black and white shahada that the Islamic State displays as its main logo. The video – like previous Boko Haram videos– was advertised by some Islamic State militants and supporters on social media. The video also features the same black screen and white font “basmala” in the opening seconds that the Islamic State always shows in its videos, and it played the same nasheeds about the “establishment of an Islamic State” as the Islamic State.
This video demonstrates that there has likely been coordination between Boko Haram and the Islamic State on media production. This may be related to the fact that some Nigerians traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State before Shekau’s pledge to al-Baghdadi. There is also al-Urwha al-Wutqha, which was responsible for coordinating Shekau’s pledge to al-Baghdadi and is likely in contact with the Islamic State and has been involved in attacks in Gombe State. (Al-Urwha al-Wutqha refers to a 1880s Islamist newspaper in Paris. Its launch as Boko Haram’s “mouthpiece” came shortly after Shekau’s praise of the Charlie Hebdo massacre). This suggests that those in Boko Haram connected to the Islamic State were not only active on social media but also in on-the-ground combat and that there may be broader strategic implications of the Boko Haram-Islamic State relationship.
What makes the video unique, however, is the fact that the speaker does not mention Shekau or al-Baghdadi at all. What could explain this irregularity? The video may have been released by a faction of Boko Haram that believes in the ideology of establishing an Islamic State but does not want to be subservient to Middle Easterners like al-Baghdadi. This faction may also only hesitantly accept Shekau as Boko Haram’s overall leader to avoid fitna, or internal strife, so the speaker neither mentions Shekau nor criticizes him.
Certain Boko Haram factions—such as the near-defunct Ansaru, which may have been behind al-Urhwa al-Wutqha’s productions—believed that Shekau adopted a takfiri style like the Islamic State’s that is more extreme than that of Boko Haram’s slain founder Muhammed Yusuf, who Ansaru holds in highest regard. (That is to say that Shekau more readily “excommunicates” and kills individuals who do not practice his prescribed form of Islam.) In fact, in the video, the speaker’s revelation of the ID cards of Nigerian soldiers who he claims to have killed is distinctly similar to Ansaru videos from earlier this year.
As the relationship between Boko Haram and the Islamic State develops, it will be important to pay close attention to factional dynamics in the Boko Haram movement and more broadly the West African and global violent extremist landscape to foresee whether new threats or reconciliation opportunities with breakaway factions emerge.