Briefing Note: Boko Haram Joins ISIS

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Boko Haram Joins ISIS

13 Mar 2015

Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to ISIS, becoming the latest jihadi group to join the so-called 'caliphate'. This briefing note examines the implications and questions.

On 7 March 2015 Boko Haram's Twitter account published an audio message from the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, swearing allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On 12 March a man claiming to be ISIS spokesperson Mohammad al-Adnani announced that Baghdadi had accepted Shekau's oath (bay'ah), formally joining the groups. Several questions are raised in the wake of the alliance, including what exactly such a bay'ah means; why Shekau made it – and why now; and what impact the alliance will likely have.

The bay'ah is an Islamic oath of allegiance sworn to a leader (this could be a political, military or religious leader; or all three). The Islamic practice of giving bay'ah dates back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed and has continued in various forms down to the present. When Baghdadi claimed to establish a caliphate in July 2014, he demanded bay'ah from all Muslims. Thirty-one jihadi groups, including Boko Haram, have so far done so. Shekau swore to "hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity... [to not] dispute about rule with those in power, except in case of evident infidelity..."

The bay'ah is a personal oath sworn by Shekau to Baghdadi – and it is binding to all those who have sworn similar oaths to Shekau. Should either die, the oath would have to be made again by successors. Such a pyramid command structure, linked through personalities, means that the myriad insurgent groups active in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin (Niger, Chad and Cameroon) that are not under the direct control of Shekau will therefore not be bound by this alliance. These other groups, including Ansaru – a Boko Haram splinter group – which is more closely aligned with al-Qaeda, may not feel any responsibility to answer to a leader half a world away, especially if their own activities are driven by local grievances. Its therefore highly possible that the alliance will not precipitate a material change in tactics or activity in Nigeria, at least in the short term.

The nature of the relationship between Boko Haram and ISIS is another aspect to consider. These is some doubt over whether Shekau will be willing to put himself in a subservient position to Baghdadi, and it is also unclear if Shekau's bay'ah represents a forthcoming shift in Boko Haram's focus away from Nigeria toward a more international jihad, but this is unlikely, at least for now. The alliance could manifest as an increase in resources trafficked between West Africa and the Middle East, combat training of Boko Haram fighters, and an increase in the apparently pre-existing assistance ISIS has been providing Boko Haram for their external communications.

In his announcement on 12 March, Adnani also called for fighters to join Boko Haram in West Africa if they could not travel to Syria. However, any foreign fighters who join Boko Haram are most likely to be from or somehow already connected to the region rather than traveling from further afield. Boko Haram has been fighting against the Nigerian government for nearly six years and in that time has failed to attract any substantial numbers of foreign fighters. Shekau's bay'ah gives a veneer of international jihad to the group, but it is likely to remain largely locally-focused, and therefore remain unattractive to foreign fighters for whom Boko Haram's local contexts and grievances do not already resonate. However, the recent reports of significant numbers of foreign mercenaries invited by the Nigerian government to combat Boko Haram may make the conflict more appealing to jihadis from outside the region.

While Boko Haram developed in a local context with Nigerian grievances, leaders of the group have also long sought to capture international attention and gain the recognition of other jihadi groups. (See the Nigeria country profile for more details on the group's development. See also the International Crisis Group report on the group for an analysis on their history.)

This alliance gives a veneer of international jihad to Boko Haram.

The timing of Shekau's message is therefore significant. In many ways this is likely to have been a publicity stunt by Shekau aimed at capturing international media attention, bolstering the group's 'jihadi credentials' and creating a perception of strength and influence. The bay'ah is a morale and confidence boost to the more ideologically driven of Boko Haram's fighters, which is important for Shekau in the context of the the approaching Nigerian elections and the first recorded  substantial losses for the group since the state of emergency was implemented in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in May 2013. It is important to note, however, that this alliance is not a reaction to the current military push against Boko Haram, but the culmination of a months long process and attempt to capitalise on the momentum ISIS has gained.

However, Shekau's bay'ah was not inevitable. Boko Haram has had connections to other jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, and even al-Qaeda central.  Al-Qaeda has expressed distaste in the past for Boko Haram's brutality and willingness to indiscriminately kill fellow Muslims, but in the context of the global rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS, this represents a blow to the former.

The alliance has been building for months, but it was never a foregone conclusion.

In addition, while Shekau's rhetoric has always contained a semblance of international awareness and sympathies (he condemned the French for their intervention in Mali in 2013 and has increasingly condemned US and British interventions in the Middle East), he has always focused on the fight against the Nigerian government and security services. Boko Haram only recently escalated its activities in the Lake Chad Basin, and although they have taken advantage of the porous borders in the area for many years, the recent rise in violence against regional targets has coincided with a growing West and Central African alliance against the group. That Shekau has chosen to tie Boko Haram to ISIS is a significant shift and likely represents a new phase for the group. The alliance may have been building for months, most evidently in the increased frequency and sophistication of Boko Haram video messages, but it was never a foregone conclusion. 

The long-term sustainability of the ISIS-Boko Haram alliance is questionable. Shekau's thuggish, erratic personality and the Nigeria-centric nature of the group's insurgency may cause tensions in the relationship. However, the propoganda victory for Boko Haram in the face of the upcoming elections, and the boost to ISIS' claim to represent a global caliphate make it likely that such difficulties will be overlooked in the short-term. 


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