|#1430||1800||September 02, 2015||By Pavneet Chadha|
On March 7, 2015 Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance (bay’at) to the emir of the Islamic State (IS)Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an audio recording released on Twitter. He said “we announce our allegiance to the caliph of the Muslims, Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim al-Husseini al-Qurashi 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.”[i]The bay’at was accepted by the Islamic State spokesperson Abu Muhammad al Adnani in an audio speech titled “So They Kill and Are Killed” on March 13, 2015.[ii]
Most commentators had severely criticized the pledge as mere propaganda or a public relations exercise[iii] citing the probability of operational linkages between the two extremist organizations being low. Some called it a desperate cry for support since the pledge came when Boko Haram’s territorial gains were reversed as it was driven out of towns that it was controlling in north-eastern Nigeria by a regional offensive from Nigerian military and the multinational forces of Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
The pledge was not a superficial tactic adopted by the Nigerian extremist group’s leadership to divert attention but it was in the works for about a year from May 2014.[iv]The signs of a formal alliance and closer affinity had begun to show as early as last year when Shekau expressed support for the Islamic State (IS) chief in July 2014 in a video recording.[v]Following Baghdadi’s declaration of a Caliphate, Shekau had announced the group’s own Islamic state in north-east Nigeria in August 2014. The IS leadership in the 4th issue of Islamic State’s English language propaganda magazine Dabiq“The Failed Crusade”, had cited the kidnapping of Christian women(Chibok) by the ‘mujahidin’ in Nigeria as precedent for their own enslavement of Yazidi women and children in Sinjar. [vi]
Boko Haram’s social media presence was virtually non-existent and was limited to producing periodic grainy videos that were amateurish with Shekau ranting in front of the camera. Boko Haram then edited its logo to incorporate the IS flag Black Standard and its videos subsequently had their anthem nasheed playing in the background. It became evident that Islamic State was assisting Boko Haram’s media operations and devising a broader media strategy for the group when Boko Haram set up its own media wing by the name of al-Urhwa al-Wutqha (the Indissoluble Link) and an associated Twitter account in January 2015. The account in the next few months disseminated videos, links and images detailing the group’s victories against the government.
The sophisticated videos subtitled in English, French and Arabic with better graphics were very similar to the propaganda that IS puts out with aerial point of view shots of towns controlled by the group and fighters on the front lines, interviews of fighters, displaying the ammunition and weapons seized from the opposition forces, training of child soldiers etc.[vii]The increasing sophistication of media production and propaganda videos point to the fact that IS now provides assistance and logistical support and may be directing strategy for the group in West Africa.
Following the pledge, Boko Haram[viii] rebranded itself as Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) changing its official name ‘Jama’atu Ahl Sunnah Liddaawati Wal Jihad’ [ix], thereby formalizing the affiliation and later being designated as one of its provinces ‘Wilayat Gharb Afriqia’. A possible reason for the delay in the formal declaration could be related to Shekau’s leadership and factionalism within Boko Haram. Some factions may be opposed to its takfiri ideology or may not want to cede their autonomy working as an offshoot of IS. This point is underscored in the 5th issue of Dabiq where the group says “This delay should end with either the appointment or recognition of leadership by the Khalīfah for those lands where multiple groups have given bay’at and merged or the establishment of a direct line of communication between the Khalifah and the mujahid leadership of lands who have yet to contact the Islamic State and thus receive information and directives from the Khalīfah.”[x]
This period also saw Boko Haram alter its tactics probably influenced by Islamic State’s gains in Iraq and Syriaby holding territory for the first time since the armed insurgency campaign began in 2010, establishing control over local government areas (LGA’s) in the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and certain towns and villages in the neighbouring states. In the captured territory, they established sharia law while practicing what may be characterized as a crude form of governance, forcibly recruiting fighters, executing minorities and burning churches.
Since the multinational task force’s offensive pushed Boko Haram out of the towns it once held, the response of loss of territories has seen a change in tactics back to asymmetric warfare as noticed in a series of suicide bombings and armed ambushes. It has expanded the range of its operations beyond the stronghold of north-eastern states of Nigeria and Lake Chad region to the northern parts of Nigeria and the Middle belt. Nigeria security network in a recent briefing warned against equating Boko Haram’s territorial losses with defeat[xi]explaining that it remains resilient as an insurgent force capable of reorganizing itself by resorting to hit and run attacks and taking refuge in Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains.
It is not yet certain whether the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) would be as interested in state formation, dispensing services or setting up administrative structures of government like the IS. Another important concern is that whether it can recapture the lost territory since the territorial hold and governance are crucial for legitimacy of the caliphate.The contours of a strategic union and convergence are emerging with reports of 80-200 fighters from ISWAP fighting in Sirte, Libyato support Islamic State in its battle with rival factions. There could be a possibility of deeper operational ties and coordinated attacks by IS affiliates in the region.[xii]
Boko Haram being one of the largest affiliates of IS, has helped strengthen the narrative of ‘Remaining and Expanding’ for the Islamic state. Whether this is a part of a long-term strategic partnership in terms of recruitment or operations capability remains to be seen.
The author is Research Assistant at CLAWS. Views expressed by the author are personal.
[iv] CTC Sentinel, Daniel Milton, Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, ‘’Pledging Bay`a: A Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State?” March 2015, Volume 8, Issue 3
[vi]Dabiq, 4th issue ‘The Failed Crusade’ page 15
[viii]Boko Haram is a name given by locals of Borno state to the group and the group considers it derogatory.
[ix] Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad.
[x]Dabiq, Issue 5 ‘Remaining and Expanding’ pg 24
[xii] CTC Sentinel, Jacob Zenn, “Wilayat West Africa reboots for the caliphate” August 2015 Volume 8, Issue 8