In an online audio message reportedly from its leader, the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram on Saturday apparently pledged formal allegiance to the Islamic State, but it’s unclear if this marks the beginning of an actual, operational alliance or if it is instead an attempt by the African group to push back against an increasingly robust regional military response.
The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, has recently adopted the tactics, practices and even the dress of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. These include producing gruesome beheading videos and a social media strategy. The Daily Beast reported in January that there appeared to be increasing ties between the two groups, but a U.S. intelligence official said there was no evidence of entrenched cooperation between the two.
“With online propaganda, cooperation and coordination between terrorist groups oftentimes appears deeper than what it is,” a U.S. intelligence official said at the time. “It’s safe to say that Boko Haram could be taking a page from the Islamic State’s social-media playbook; but for Boko Haram, their current propaganda efforts have been more of an evolution as they attempt… to ratchet up the pressure on the Nigerian government.”
If a formal alliance has been made, however, it would represent a new and dangerous turn for West Africa and the countries fighting Boko Haram. As The Daily Beast reported in February, a renewed push by troops from Chad, Cameroon and Niger have put pressure on Boko Haram, which previously had only to fight the poorly trained and equipped Nigerian army, which has proven itself incapable of an offensive strategy against the terror group.
Instead, the Chadian military has decades of hardened battlefield experience; Cameroon has deployed its Israeli-trained and -equipped rapid reaction force, considered one of the best military units in the region; and Niger’s forces has been a beneficiary of U.S. military assistance and Special Forces training.
In recent weeks, Boko Haram has lost control of a number of towns, so, today’s announcement of fealty to al-Baghdadi may be an attempt to regain the momentum in the propaganda war by instilling terror in the civilians in the areas the group retains.
The question now is how will al-Baghdadi respond? While it would be difficult to blatantly turn down the allegiance of a large jihadist group like Boko Haram—some estimates say it has about 6,000 fighters, making it the largest group to pledge allegiance to ISIS—the two groups have different views of Islam. Would Shekau take orders from al-Baghdadi? Or would it be less an operational alliance and more of a short-term, propaganda victory?
Regardless of the facts and dynamic that drove Shekau’s decision to join forces with al-Baghdadi, on the ground in Nigeria, ISIS still retains a draw for some young Nigerian Muslim men.
For example: Young, vibrant and outspoken, Ibrahim Uwais could easily have added his voice to issues concerning Nigeria’s forthcoming general elections just like many young people in the country are doing, but instead he shocked the country by reportedly joining ISIS.
A son of a highly respected former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, who is known for his hard stance on the rule of law, it was reported last Tuesday that Ibrahim had left Nigeria for Syria few days back with his two wives and children to enlist and fight for ISIS. He is said to be a close friend of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called “Underwear Bomber.”
Ibrahim could be the first confirmed case of a Nigerian joining ISIS, heightening fears the children of highly placed Nigerians were being recruited by ISIS.
“We are aware that recruiters for ISIS from South Africa are seeking to recruit young vulnerable Nigerians via the social media. This was why we alerted Nigerians last week of this development,” said Mike Omeri, Coordinator of the National Information Centre.
To stanch any flow of young me to ISIS before it starts, Omeri said government agencies were collaborating with organizations and aggressively educating Nigerian youths on the dangers of jihad and radicalism.
“As we speak, I am attending a program in Lagos where we are actively educating the youths on the dangers of radicalism and jihad in order to discourage them. We are also teaching them on how to safely use the social media in order to help them detect fraudulent intentions.”
Since ISIS declared its self-styled caliphate last June—which included Nigeria—countries around the world have been on high alert for foreign fighters trying to get to Iraq and Syria. New security measures have forced the extremists to adopt more-creative recruitment methods, but they have not hindered the militant group’s ability to reach a wide range of prospective recruits.
Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have cracked down on the Islamic State group’s recruitment cells outside Iraq and Syria as well as on its sophisticated use of social media to attract and inculcate recruits while spreading its message. Despite the new measures, ISIS has managed to draw in 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 40 countries.
In a country where Boko Haram controls a large territory in the northeast and recruits soldiers with ease, an alliance with ISIS would almost certainly mean more young Nigerians heading to Syria.
“From all that’s been happening, I’m worried that many of our young ones might be easily lured into joining ISIS,” said Yusuf Mohammed, an Arabic scholar in Nigeria’s northeastern Maiduguri. “I’ve seen a couple of young people reading a lot about ISIS on their phones,” he added.
Many young Nigerians are well aware of the existence and scope of ISIS. During a trip to the northeastern town of Damaturu, a group of schoolboys were engaged in a discussion about ISIS. They knew a lot about the group—its source of funding and mode of recruitment. In their analysis, a few referred to what they read on social media. Some, though, argued about the objective of the group.
“What worries me is the fact that many young people are reading and asking questions about ISIS,” said Agafi Kunduli, a social worker based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “I could easily have concluded that they’re doing this just for their education. But with the increasing number of foreigners pitching tent with the organization, I’m beginning to get skeptical.”
Nigerians are often not very quick to respond to statements from Boko Haram, but this time, very few are silent on the group's announcement. While some have begun to panic over the development, those who can are moving their families away from the troubled northeastern region to safer areas.
"With this development, I'm taking all my children away. I don't want any of them to end up with ISIS because that's where many young people may be heading to with all that is happening," said Babagana Shettima, a businessman based in the cosmopolitan town of Maiduguri.
Many of Maiduguri's elite are taking precautionary measures to prevent their children from joining ISIS. In most quarters, there is a believe that ISIS only target children of rich and highly placed individuals in the society. That conviction grew after Ibrahim's trip to Syria made headlines in the local media.
"I went to visit a politician today, and he said he was relocating his family immediately," said Suleiman Hamza, a local journalist. "His friend who sat close to him said he was doing the same thing."