For sheer cruelty, they are well matched. They also share an apocalyptic “end of days” vision. Now there are signs that Boko Haram- the most feared group in West Africa- may be edging towards a formal pledge of allegiance to the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Observers of Boko Haram, which has inflicted years of terror on northeast Nigeria, note that it’s actions in the last six months have frequently mimicked those of ISIS- from punishment such as stoning and beheading of its victims to taking territory and an increasingly sophisticated use of social media that’s very much ISIS style. The latest sign that Boko Haram is wooing ISIS came last Sunday with a series of tweets released by jihadists site Afriqiyah Media, which declared it’s own allegiance to ISIS in December. One tweet quoted Boko Haram’s own media arm as saying: “We give you glad tidings that the groups Shurah Council is at the stage of consulting and studying, and we will let you know soon the group’s decision in respect to pledging allegiance to the caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, may Allah preserve him,” according to a translation by SITE intelligence. The message was purportedly posted on February 9.
Jacob Zenn, who follows Boko Haram operations and propaganda closely, says “it is possible that due to factions within Boko Haram, the Shurah was unable to come to an agreement at this point. It’s clear Boko Haram is leaning towards ISIS in terms of doctrine, ideology and an emphasis on holding territory after operations.” In August last year, Boko Haram declared it’s own caliphate after seizing the area around Gwoza in Borno state. In terms of ideology, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has said that kidnappings and hostage taking are approved in the Koran, a claim ISIS also makes. “Our hostages are Christians or corrupted Muslims who follow the Christian way,” he said last year, referring to the schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok, most of whom remain missing. ISIS later referred to the Chibok abductions in its kidnapping of hundreds of Yazidi women and girls. Zenn and other analysts also point out that recent Boko Haram videos have resembled the polished media productions of ISIS. Zenn notes they “have the same choreography and lens angles as ISIS, particularly it’s video of John Cantlie in Kobani.” Boko Haram has also began using ISIS symbolism in its media productions and operations. The Nigerian press noted with alarm last July that Boko Haram militants have been seen raising ISIS rayat al-uqab flags along the Nigerian-Cameroon border. Recent videos have featured the same flag. Nor is Boko Haram shy about appealing for help from ISIS. The message posted on February 9 requested the “mujahideen of the Islamic State to deliver our message to all Muslims that your brothers in Nigeria are calling you to immigrate to us, to assist us in managing the areas in which we have control and fight the alliance of the disbelievers.” A formal pledge of allegiance may only occur once a positive response is assured.
So far the response from ISIS has been muted, especially when compared to al Baghdadi’s very public proclamation of “provinces” in Libya and Egypt. One reason may be that ISIS doesn’t all together trust Shekau- whose pronouncements are often incoherent and meandering- and perceives Boko Haram to be disunited. ISIS may also be weary of Boko Haram’s existing links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); al Qaeda and ISIS are competing for leadership of the global jihadist movement. However, some factions within AQIM have themselves pledged to ISIS, and analysts note that some prominent supporters of ISIS such as Shaybah al-Hamad, have begun promoting statements and videos produced by Boko Haram. Another part of Boko Haram’s strategy that may borrow from ISIS is its concentration on creating it’s own space either side of international borders. Just as ISIS has carved out its “caliphate” on both sides of Syrian-Iraq border, so Boko Haram has focused on Borno state, which borders both Cameroon and Chad. Shekau has castigated (as has ISIS) the colonial era borders separating Muslims, saying once “We don’t know Cameroon or Chad…….I don’t have a country.” And earlier this month he declared in another video: “O people of Cameroon! O, people of Chad! Repent to Allah the Almighty. Know that one cannot be a Muslim but by disavowing democracy.” Once seen as an exclusively Nigerian movement, Boko Haram’s horizons are broadening to the north and east, prompting closer military cooperation by the government’s of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, whose latest offensive appear to be putting Boko Haram on the defensive in most parts of the border region. When and wether there will be a formal alliance between Boko Haram and ISIS is still very much open to debate, but at the very least, the Nigerian groups’ shifting priorities, behaviour and presentation is another sign of ISIS’ far-reaching influence among jihadist groups.