Remember Al Qaeda? Since the rise of the so-called Islamic State, still widely known as ISIS, Al Qaeda as such has started to look like the Eastman Kodak of global terror: an organization that once dominated its market and the popular imagination, but failed to embrace change and now is on the road to oblivion or absorption by smarter, more aggressive competitors.
If one needed a sign that ISIS is a real global movement, the recent pledge of allegiance by the bloodthirsty Nigerian terror group Boko Haram to the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should be it. Boko Haram is among more than 30 groups from the Philippines to Afghanistan and across Africa from Egypt to Libya and Algeria that have sworn their fealty to this new overlord. But Boko Haram’s new move has especially important ramifications.
As early as June in attacks in Cameroon, Boko Haram was already planting signposts and flags with the same logo as ISIS. The implications of Boko Haram joining ISIS are numerous: it is a win-win for both groups. They will now monopolize even more media attention. It will give actually a boost to Boko Haram, which has always felt it did not get the attention of global media while it has been in the top three of the most murderous terror groups in the world.
It makes total sense for Boko Haram to join ISIS because of the huge brand recognition factor; the potential draw of recruits from the Nigerian diaspora or fighters from other theatres of war or even the West, and the additional funding that could come in.
For ISIS, having Boko Haram in the circle of trust means that the caliphate is even more of a geographical reality than ever before; its new affiliate is the most powerful terror group in Africa wreaking havoc in the most populous and richest country of the continent, Nigeria, along with neighbors Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Al Qaeda is the big loser of the Boko Haram allegiance to ISIS, especially since BokoHaram and al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had a long-lasting relationship.
Indeed, as early as 2006, Nigerian security sources feared that Boko Haram members were training in the Sahel alongside AQIM, with its “emir,” Abdelmalek Droukdel. confirming that his group had Nigerian elements in its midst in 2008. In January 2010, Droukdel stated that AQIM would assist Boko Haram with training, personnel and equipment. Furthermore, allegations have surfaced of certain Boko Haram elements responding directly to AQIM leadership. For instance, the kidnapping of seven French tourists in Cameroon by Boko Haram in February 2013 at the height of the French military intervention in Mali could be interpreted as an act of vengeance against France.
According to a September 2013 House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee report, the AQIM-Boko Haram collaboration “is a mature relationship that allows Boko Haram an avenue to advance its capability, and gives AQIM influence over a developing al Qaeda affiliate and a rich target list,” as well as allowing AQIM to expand into Nigeria, where it could spread additional chaos and exacerbate tensions between Muslims and Christians.
The AQIM-Boko Haram connection also opened up a source of financing to the Nigerian group, which previously was reliant on extortion, bank robberies and taxation of areas it controlled in the north. For example, it is possible that AQIM-aligned terrorists were responsible for funding the recent focus Boko Haram has placed on kidnap for ransom of foreigners.
One report suggested that AQIM offered Boko Haram approximately $250,000 to kidnap white expatriates in Nigeria, and that they trained the Nigerian group in hostage taking. Some foreign kidnappings pulled off by Boko Haram may have been ordered by AQIM.
Boko Haram’s links to AQIM have also been expanded by its activities in Mali where, according to the United Nations, “a number of Boko Haram members fought alongside al Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013 before returning to Nigeria with terrorist expertise.” Prior to the French military invasion of January 2013, one AQIM training centre close to Timbuktu was attended by a significant number of Boko Haram fighters, with more Nigerians present at the training camp than any other foreign trainees.
In light of all this, one can see how much of a blow the Boko Haram’s shift of allegiance is for al Qaeda. And it begs the following question: Now that al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri’s strategy and leadership are in shambles, how long until the other Al Qaeda franchisees join ISIS?
In nine months, ISIS has erased 17 years of Al Qaeda's hegemony in the jihadist world: an enormous achievement. Bringing Boko Haram to the fold is a huge coup for ISIS, one that will give it a tremendous credibility boost and inter-continental reach. ISIS has become a more formidable force than even al Qaeda was at its zenith.
Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consultancy firm for corporations and governments. He tweets @OlivierGuitta.