Boko Haram isn’t about to become a mere extension of ISIS, despite a purported pledge allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State this weekend. Instead, ISIS is likely to offer resources, training, and its brand so the Nigerian terror group can create a distinct province within an Islamic caliphate, experts and U.S. officials told The Daily Beast. It’s a model that ISIS is increasingly adopting as it attempts to spread its reach around the planet.
Boko Haram leader Abubaker Shekau has embraced ISIS tactics and even the religious dress of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in the last year. But Shekau is also a control freak, experts said. That means he’s unlikely to allow micromanaging from ISIS leaders thousands of miles away, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.
Boko Haram “is reluctant to be subsumed to another group,” one government official explained to The Daily Beast. This isn’t the first time Shekau’s outfit has allegedly cast its lot with an outside terror organization. “We usually see them pledging allegiance when they need something or want something.”
And right now, they need something. After a series of recent setbacks, Boko Haram could use ISIS’s help finessing its messaging, developing its terror tactics and sowing fear in Nigeria by adopting the ISIS name. Such sharing only needs a few ISIS fighters offering guidance. Because of that, the most important immediate question in the face of the purported allegiance is whether ISIS fighters start to travel to Nigeria from places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
So far, “we have seen no operational linkages,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday.
While U.S. officials have been telegraphing a possible ISIS-Boko Haram team-up for more than a month, on Monday they were quick to say that the announcement should not be exaggerated; so far, there is no evidence of direct communication or money changing hands. But Boko Haram is not short on cash, having gained millions though kidnappings for ransoms, looting of cities and selling weapons procured from overrun Nigerian military forces.
Rather, both sides stand to gain quite a bid for a relatively small price. For the Islamic State, embracing Boko Haram allows it to seemingly extend its grip. For Boko Haram, which in recent weeks lost momentum and control of a number of towns to a multinational force, the purported fealty to al-Baghdadi may be an attempt to instill terror in the civilians in the areas the group retains.
Such an allegiance could also encourage ISIS fighters who find it increasingly difficult to travel from north Africa to places like Iraq and Syria to move south instead, J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, explained to The Daily Beast.
Boko Haram has made connections to outside jihadi groups before. There were reports as early as 2010 that Boko Haram pledged an alliance with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but the degree of cooperation was always opaque. Either way, in that case it appeared the al Qaeda branch tried unsuccessfully to foist its vision on the group.
During Boko Haram’s purported relationship with al Qaeda, “there was never anything formal publicly. There were only rumors and signs of training. This announcement is a lot more overt,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs who studies jihadi movements.
Boko Haram is the latest of about a dozen terror groups to claim allegiance to ISIS, and a pattern is beginning to emerge in how ISIS treats such relationships. It’s very different from the al Qaeda model.
Al Qeada once sought to create the protocol for franchising a jihadi movement. But that group sought to create furtive links with groups and demanded strict adherence to its brand of jihadism.
ISIS, on the other hand, appears more flexible. Groups like Boko Haram and Libya’s Islamic Youth Shura Council, which pledged allegiance to ISIS on June 22, have been allowed to embrace tactics and brand in ways that allows them to flesh out their vision for a province within an ISIS-led caliphate.
“Rather than trying to expand [like al Qeada] from the center, the Islamic State is mushrooming all over the place,” Pham said. “There may not be conducting tactical command day-to-day, but they’re certainly going to have tighter command on messaging and strategy.”
Or as Jason Pack, president of Libya-Analysis.com and longtime student of the relationship between ISIS and Libyan jihadist groups, explained, after a group pledges allegiance, ISIS fighters move in and offer “something like a jihadi startup kit.”
Perhaps the best example of this is Libya’s Islamic Youth Shura Council, based out of the city of Derna. In the weeks leading up to its pledge of allegiance, the Shura Council revamped its online presence to mirror the ISIS campaign. Two months ago, Boko Haram transformed its rudimentary online presence into a flashy ISIS-like display. And as The Daily Beast reported in January, there appeared to be increasing ties between the Boko Haram and ISIS, particularly on media operations and tactics.
Like Boko Haram, the Shura Council was not short on cash. Rather, after swearing its loyalty, evidence emerged that fighters were traveling to Libya and offering terror tactics. Moreover, Libyans fighting on behalf of ISIS in Iraq and Syria were allowed to come home and share their lessons with local counterparts, Pack said.
And in both in Derna and Nigeria, the groups both have a very local agenda.
“They admire ISIS,” Pack said. “They want to be like ISIS. That doesn’t mean they want to be ISIS or take orders from ISIS.”
Three months after pledging its allegiance to ISIS, the Shura Council announced that its territory in Derna was now part of the Islamic State, suggesting an ongoing pairing with the two groups.
On Saturday, an audio message emerged online in which a man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS.
“We announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease, and to endure being discriminated against, and not to dispute about rule with those in power, except in case of evident infidelity regarding that which there is a proof from Allah,” Shekau said in a tweeted message that attached to the video, the Associated Press reported.
ISIS has yet to respond to Shekau’s message. But in the past, it has taken weeks for the group to respond to pledges of allegiance.