In a recording Boko Haram released last week Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The recording appears to be authentic. Shekau’s pledge goes further than his previous statements of support for ISIS, and was a Boko Haram propaganda coup: once again, the movement made the front page of the New York Times and became a brief media sensation. However, it is unclear what, if any, practical effects this pledge will have.
Some commentators see the new relationship between Boko Haram and ISIS as another example of the latter’s efforts to establish a network of franchises beyond its heartland. For its part, closer association with ISIS might also be a boost to Boko Haram prestige, especially outside of Nigeria. The initiative appears to have come from Shekau, and as yet there has been no response from ISIS. Though North African suitors have been turned down in the past, that is unlikely in the case of Boko Haram, given its size. It may be a few days or weeks, however, before there is a public ISIS response.
There is speculation that Shekau is seeking money, weapons, and even foreign fighters by a closer alignment with ISIS. Other commentators, including parts of the Nigerian military, suggest that Shekau is looking for outside support in the face of reversals due to a joint offensive launched by the military’s of Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria. However, at this time there is little evidence that ISIS arms, money, and fighters will be forthcoming. But, that might change in the future.
It may be unlikely that Boko Haram will attract European or American “foreign fighters.” Whatever their European or American passports, most of the foreign fighters that have joined ISIS appear to be of Middle Eastern or North African origin. The ISIS connection might encourage volunteers from nearby states to join Boko Haram. In fact, the Nigerian military has already reported that Tuaregs from Mali are present among Boko Haram. If ISIS is unlikely to supply weapons or money, it may provide training for Boko Haram fighters and technical assistance with propaganda and the use of social media. Such support could accelerate Boko Haram’s adoption of ISIS methods and improve its fighting capability and, possibly widen its political reach.
Boko Haram’s leadership and structure appears much more diffused than that of ISIS. In many ways, Boko Haram resembles a popular uprising that uses Islamic vocabulary and imagery to justify its actions and motivate followers, while ISIS is clearly a centralized terrorist organization with millenarian goals. Given Boko Haram’s structure, it is unclear how many members of the movement will honor Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS.
Nevertheless, the Shekau pledge is a sign that Boko Haram, or at least parts of it, is moving away from it its traditional focus on the destruction of the Nigerian state and acquiring a more international character, a development potentially damaging to American interests.