The virtual significance of Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS

By Terje Ostebo, University of Florida

The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIS has generated a wave of speculation about its significance.

ISIS’s response was to release an audio tape purporting to welcome the pledge. In the rest of the world one dominant view is that ISIS and the jihadi front is spreading and becoming more organized, which, in turn, has spurred the US government to consider expanding its military actions to include ISIS affiliates.

There are, however, good reasons not to read too much into the Boko Haram pledge. It is probable that it will have little or no real practical significance, beyond the initial public relations bump.

Boko Haram under pressure

The pledge of allegiance (Arabic: bayat) by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau on March 7 was made in an audio-message, in which the organization expresses its support for ISIS.

The announcement was hardly surprising; Boko Haram had been for some time praising ISIS’s actions. Also, the pledge comes at the time when Boko Haram is under much pressure. The recent coordinated offensive by the Chadian, Cameroonian and Nigerian armies has taken its toll on the organization. The pledge could possibly be seen as an act of desperation.

It is, however, doubtful if the pledge will turn any tide, and it is unlikely that the announced cooperation between Boko Haram and ISIS would mean much – in practical terms – to either party.

The Somali organization al-Shabaab made a similar pledge to al-Qaida in 2012 without having any practical implications.

It is unlikely that ISIS will provide Boko Haram with fighters and arms. Boko Haram has, in fact, been critical of “Arab” involvement in its activities in Nigeria. Foreign fighters are not flocking to Nigeria as they are to ISIS-held areas. Nor is it likely that Boko Haram will provide soldiers to ISIS. It might mean infusion of funds from ISIS, but also that is uncertain.

Boko Haram and ISIS are rooted in different localities

Keep in mind that both organizations – even if they claim to represent something global – reflect their respective localities.

Boko Haram has its specific history and ethnic particularity and is geographically confined to northeast Nigeria. It has been haunted by internal divisions, and there are many questions as to how strong and coherent the current leadership is. Thus it is doubtful that the recent pledge will mean that Boko Haram would submit to the will of ISIS, take orders from Bagdadi, and view itself as a branch of ISIS.

This situation relates to the larger issue of constant fragmentation among militant Islamic groups.

The rise of ISIS has created tensions within the jihadi camp, with al-Qaida going against ISIS, and rifts developing between ISIS and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – the main jihadi ideologist associated with ISIS’s forerunner, al-Qaida in Iraq.

Boko Haram is itself a coalition of various factions, and it is unclear how strong this alliance actually is. While affiliating itself with ISIS, Boko Haram has at the same time not distanced itself from al-Qaida.

Everyone wants to be a caliph

A pattern of disintegration seems to be at play: exclusive ideologies coupled with violent struggles are empowering to individuals.

When groups under the leadership of strong personalities experience success they create momentum and leadership. Everyone, basically, wants to be a caliph or spiritual leader.

Just as al-Shabaab’s pledge to al-Qaida and its push beyond the confines of Somalia produced conflicts within that organization, Boko Haram’s pledge to ISIS may possibly spur further internal tensions.

The US and other Western powers should, therefore, be careful not to interpret the pledge as yet another sign of a more solidified front. While there obviously is an urgent need to reduce the human suffering caused by these organizations, there is a similar need to maintain a realistic view of the situation, to avoid exaggerating the threat scenarios, and to apply strategies that reduce the risk of political collateral damage.

It is also important to note the format of the pledge – an audio-message posted online. This is in clear contrast to how such pledges traditionally were done, when individuals or groups declared their allegiance in real time and space.

Boko Haram’s pledge obviously has an important symbolic meaning, but there is a noncommittal flavor to it. It says what it says, but that’s not necessarily binding for either party.

In a world with constant flows of messaging, including the posting of online fatwas (legal rulings) and jihadi propaganda videos, let’s not forget the ephemeral nature of such messages. Yesterday’s postings are forgotten and substituted by today’s postings.

Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS can therefore for practical reasons remain what it is: virtual.

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Boko Haram declaration of an ISIS alliance may be a cry for help

Simon Tisdall writes: The pledge of allegiance offered to Islamic State (Isis) by the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, over the weekend, is a superficially impressive propaganda coup for the Syria-based Islamist extremist organisation, which has been collecting affiliates around the Muslim world like some people collect stamps.

But the new alliance, unilaterally proclaimed at the weekend by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, is unlikely to amount to much in terms of immediate collaboration on joint operations. It may, in fact, be more of a cry for help, given a recent string of defeats sustained by Boko Haram. Since January’s gruesome and well-publicised massacre in Baga, on the border with Chad, when it butchered hundreds of civilians, Boko Haram has faced a concerted push-back from Nigeria’s military and a nascent multinational force combining troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin.

In the latest military moves, Niger and Chad said Sunday they had launched a “ground and air” offensive into Boko Haram-held territory in northeastern Nigeria. The attack followed the African Union’s decision on Friday to approve a regional force of 10,000 troops headquartered in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, tasked with “eradicating the presence” of Boko Haram.

This evolving regional security alliance has political backing from the US, France, and Britain. But the western powers remain loth to get involved directly themselves. US bilateral relations have been complicated by concern over human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces. As Boko Haram has been forced on to the defensive, several key towns in Shekau’s self-styled caliphate have been recaptured by the army, including Baga, Gambaru, and the garrison town of Monguno. Chad’s president, Idriss Deby, claimed last week that he knew the whereabouts of the Boko Haram leader and called on him to surrender or be killed. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram declares allegiance to ISIS

The Observer reports: Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, which rules a self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, according to a video posted online. The pledge came in an Arabic audio message with English subtitles alleged to have come from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and posted Saturday on Twitter, according to the SITE Intelligence monitoring service.

“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,” said the message.

The video script identified the caliph as Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim al-Awad al-Qurashi, who is better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and self-proclaimed caliph of the Muslim world. Baghdadi has already accepted pledges of allegiance from other jihadist groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and north Africa.

Boko Haram has been waging a six-year military campaign to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times adds: An oath of allegiance from Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, to the Islamic State on Saturday reinforces Western fears that the terrorist group is growing beyond its base in Iraq and Syria. These worries have prompted American and allied commandos to rush to train African counterterrorism troops to fight extremists on the continent.

The expanding effort here on the edge of the Sahara to fight militancies like Boko Haram comes as the group has kidnapped schoolgirls, slaughtered thousands of people, and now has expanded its attacks from Nigeria into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

“When your neighbor’s house is burning, you have to put it out, because if not, yours is next,” said Lt. Col. Brahim Mahanat, a Chadian Army officer who spoke during the Pentagon’s annual military exercise with 1,200 African troops, United States Army Special Forces and other Western commandos, which ends on Monday.

More than any exercise in the past decade, this year’s training — three weeks of marksmanship, mock ambushes and patrols in harsh desert terrain — is bumping up against real-world operations. The Chadian capital, Ndjamena, is just 30 miles from militant-held territory in Nigeria, and Boko Haram has vowed revenge since Chad began cross-border attacks against the militants. Police officers and army troops have stepped up patrols in the capital in response to increased risks, including suicide bombings.

Boko Haram has, in the meantime, pushed more than 200,000 Nigerian refugees across the border into neighboring countries. And on Saturday, three explosions rocked the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, killing dozens of people in the worst attack there since suspected Islamist militants tried to seize it in January. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram’s latest video mirrors ISIS propaganda

Mashable: The latest video posted by West African Islamist extremists Boko Haram marks a change in tactics for the militant group.

The footage, featuring a man believed to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, depicts the reclusive leader delivering a 12-minute “message” to leaders in the Nigerian government and western democracies, condemning their rule of law and urging their leaders to turn to Allah.

But perhaps most interesting is the way in which the video was shared, the iconography used throughout, its higher resolution and the cues the group seems to be taking from its colleagues in the Islamic State (ISIS), militants thousands of miles away.


Boko Haram refugees recount brutality and random killings in Nigeria’s north

The New York Times reports: They came in the dead of night, their faces covered, riding on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, shouting “Allahu akbar” and firing their weapons.

“They started with the shootings; then came the beheadings,” said Hussaini M. Bukar, 25, who fled after Boko Haram fighters stormed his town in northern Nigeria. “They said, ‘Where are the unbelievers among you?’”

Women and girls were systematically imprisoned in houses, held until Boko Haram extracted the ones it had chosen for “marriage” or other purposes.

“They were parking” — imprisoning — “young girls and small, small children, parking them in the big houses,” said Bawa Safiya Umar, 45, whose 17-year-old son was killed when her town fell under Boko Haram’s control. “They parked 450 girls in four houses.”

Refugees flocking into this besieged provincial capital describe a grim world of punishment, abduction and death under Boko Haram in the Islamist quasi state it has imposed in parts of northern Nigeria.[Continue reading…]


Killing in a media blackout

AFP’s Phil Hazlewood reports: The fishing town of Baga in the far north of Borno is a no-go zone, as is much of the state, which has been worst hit by the violence.

No one can travel there, not even AFP’s local Nigerian staff. Telecommunications are destroyed. The only option is for survivors of Boko Haram raids to make it to an area still under government control – like the Borno state capital, Maiduguri – or over the border into Chad to tell their stories. Sometimes that can take weeks.

Photos and video, the proof that seems to be increasingly required to establish beyond doubt that an attack took place? Forget it.

Initial reporting of the attack in Baga went to type: AFP got word of the attack and issued a one-line alert on January 4. Beyond that, all we knew was that hundreds of people had fled and Boko Haram had overrun a military base used by Nigerian, Nigerien and Chadian troops in the counter-insurgency.

Four days later, President Goodluck Jonathan was in Lagos to launch his election campaign when Musa Bukar went on the Hausa-language service of BBC radio.

Bukar, a local government official from near Baga, claimed as many as 2,000 people may have been killed when Boko Haram fighters stormed the town, razing it and at least 16 surrounding settlements. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram rampage in NE Nigeria where there are no government troops

The Associated Press reports: Islamic extremists are rampaging through villages in northeastern Nigeria, killing, burning and looting with no troops protecting civilians, fleeing villagers said Wednesday.

More than 40 people have been killed in seven villages in Adamawa state this week, according to resident Emmanuel Kwache.

“They slaughtered people like rams and they burned down our houses after looting food,” Kwache said. “There’s no presence of troops, some residents are hiding on top of hills, while those that could not run were abducted, particularly youths and women.”

State legislator Adamu Kamale said he has appealed in vain for troops since the attacks began on Friday. On Monday the militants moved into Michika town, he said. [Continue reading…]


Nigeria’s prospects for defeating Boko Haram look bleak

The Guardian reports: Nigeria’s current military strategy for defeating Boko Horam is unlikely to succeed, analysts have warned, with the international community largely powerless to defeat the increasingly rampant Islamist group.

Corruption inside the Nigerian army, unpaid wages, and mutinies among troops have all facilitated Boko Haram’s rise, they said. On Sunday the sect, which has killed thousands in its bid to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, kidnapped about 80 people in neighbouring Cameroon. The victims of this latest cross-border attack included many children. The Cameroon army subsequently managed to free 20 of the hostages.

Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa programme, said Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, had been manifestly unable to halt Boko Haram’s advance. The opposition leader, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking to unseat Jonathan in the election on 14 February, may be better able to overhaul the country’s dysfunctional military, he suggested. [Continue reading…]


Nigeria’s president says nothing about latest Boko Haram massacre

Foreign Policy: With the world’s gaze focused on Paris last week, militants from Boko Haram destroyed the town of Baga and several neighboring villages in northern Nigeria, killing up to 2,000 people and displacing thousands more. On Saturday, at least another 16 people were killed when extremists strapped a bomb to a girl who may have been as young as 10 and then detonated it in a crowded marketplace.

You’d expect Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to condemn the carnage inside his country, particularly after he called last week’s massacre at a French satirical newspaper a “dastardly terrorist attack.” But you’d be wrong: Jonathan has yet to acknowledge that any of the Boko Haram attacks even took place.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Nigerian defense ministry said the death toll from the Baga massacre had been “exaggerated” and said the government’s own count put the tally at 150. Other groups are working toward a solid tally, but the Nigerian government has a long history of underestimating and downplaying the prevalence of Boko Haram.


Nigeria: 2,000 feared killed in Boko Haram’s ‘deadliest massacre’

The Guardian reports: Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from an Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram.

Fighting continued on Friday around Baga, a town on the border with Chad where insurgents seized a key military base on 3 January and attacked again on Wednesday.

“Security forces have responded rapidly, and have deployed significant military assets and conducted air strikes against militant targets,” said a government spokesman.

District head Baba Abba Hassan said most victims are children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents.

“The human carnage perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists in Baga was enormous,” Muhammad Abba Gava, a spokesman for poorly armed civilians in a defence group that fights Boko Haram, told the Associated Press.

He said the civilian fighters gave up on trying to count all the bodies. “No one could attend to the corpses and even the seriously injured ones who may have died by now,” Gava said.

An Amnesty International statement said there are reports the town was razed and as many as 2,000 people killed.

If true, “this marks a disturbing and bloody escalation of Boko Haram’s ongoing onslaught,” said Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram rampages, slaughters in northeast Nigeria

The Wall Street Journal reports: Following its bloody siege on a garrison town, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram has carried out a nearly weeklong massacre in northeastern Nigeria, officials and residents said Friday, creating a gruesome backdrop to the country’s presidential campaign.

The militants that overtook the remote town of Baga on Saturday spent the next days hunting down and killing its residents, survivors said.

One man, Bulama Masta, said he lost his five children as they tried to swim and hike their way to safety. Two drowned on Saturday and the other three were shot on Sunday as they ran, he said. He arrived Monday into the largest nearby city, Maiduguri.

Boko Haram fighters swept through the surrounding villages outside Baga, killing residents of communities who they consider to be opponents, as well as men who tried to escape, according to Mr. Masta and other survivors, as well as officials and local vigilantes.

On Wednesday, Boko Haram burned down the entire town. [Continue reading…]


Conflicts that were under-reported in 2014: Libya, Yemen, Assam, The Sudans, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Kenya

Ishaan Tharoor writes: 2014 has been a brutal year. The death toll of Syria’s ongoing civil war likely eclipsed 200,000, while the hideous rise of the Islamic State spurred a U.S.-led bombing campaign. A separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine led to thousands of deaths and clouded relations between the West and Moscow, which is believed to be aiding the rebels. And an Israeli offensive against Hamas militants saw whole stretches of the Gaza Strip reduced to rubble.

Sadly, there was plenty of other mayhem and violence that didn’t make newspaper frontpages as often. Here are seven awful conflicts that merited more attention. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram now appears intent on governing

The Wall Street Journal reports: After seizing another village in Nigeria’s northeast last month, Boko Haram militants took a step in their transition from terror group to governing authority. They rounded up the men and ordered them to wear pants as the prophet Mohammed did, several inches above the ankle.

Otherwise, a Boko Haram commander told a crowd of men, they would be killed. “So we folded our trousers,” said Birgamus Kadams, a 26-year-old who was among the group of several hundred residents of Garkidi village the militant addressed.

Like 1.5 million other Nigerians, Mr. Kadams fled his home, in his case to the government-held town of Yola. But the world he left behind is changing.

After years of sowing chaos—bombing mosques, gunning up markets, kidnapping children, and leaving thousands dead, Boko Haram now appears intent on establishing order in towns it holds.

Fighters are imposing rigorous Islamic law in a bid to carve out a corner of a strategic, oil-rich country—just as its fellow jihadists in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are doing. [Continue reading…]


WikiLeaks reveals Shell’s grip on Nigerian state

The Guardian reports:

The oil giant Shell claimed it had inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it access to politicians’ every move in the oil-rich Niger Delta, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

The company’s top executive in Nigeria told US diplomats that Shell had seconded employees to every relevant department and so knew “everything that was being done in those ministries”. She boasted that the Nigerian government had “forgotten” about the extent of Shell’s infiltration and was unaware of how much the company knew about its deliberations.

The cache of secret dispatches from Washington’s embassies in Africa also revealed that the Anglo-Dutch oil firm swapped intelligence with the US, in one case providing US diplomats with the names of Nigerian politicians it suspected of supporting militant activity, and requesting information from the US on whether the militants had acquired anti-aircraft missiles.


The real tragedy in Nigeria’s violence

The real tragedy in Nigeria’s violence

Nigeria’s latest spate of violence — which began with attacks on police stations in four northern states — is not what it seems. Superficially, the story looks similar to (though it was not connected with) outbreaks of Islamist fanaticism elsewhere in the world: An Islamist sect run amok, threatening a town’s security, demanding an end to Western institutions, and seeking to impose a strict religious code. But instead, the clashes are a northern Nigerian version of what is happening in another (mostly Christian) region of the country, the Niger Delta. Both are violent reactions to the flagrant lack of concern on the part of those who govern for the welfare of the governed.

Ten years of supposed democracy have yielded mounting poverty and deprivation of every kind in Nigeria. Young people, undereducated by a collapsed educational system, may “graduate,” but only into joblessness. Lives decline, frustration grows, and angry young men are too easily persuaded to pick up readily accessible guns in protest when something sparks their rage. Meanwhile, those in power at all levels ignore the business of governing and instead enrich themselves. Law and order deteriorate. The Nigerian police, which are federal, are called on, but they have grievances of their own. Ill-trained, ill-paid, and housed in squalid barracks, they are feared for their indiscriminate use of force. The military, though more professional, is not prepared for dealing with unrest — and unrest has proliferated more and more. [continued…]

Islamist uprising killed 780 in one Nigerian city: Red Cross

At least 780 people were killed in last week’s military operation to quell an uprising by an Islamist sect in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the Red Cross said Monday.

“So far a total of 780 dead bodies were picked from the streets of Maiduguri and given a mass burial at three sites in the city,” Nigeria Red Cross official Muhammad Zanna Barma told AFP.

Fighting erupted between security forces and members of an extremist Islamist sect after an attack on a police station in nearby Bauchi state, and later spread to Kano, Yobe and Borno states.

Officials had last week put the death toll in violence in Yobe and Bauchi states at 98, bringing the overall total to 878, using the Red Cross figure for Maiduguri.

Suggesting on Sunday that the vast majority of the dead were sect members, officials said the bodies were swept into mass graves as their families were unwilling to claim them, for fear of being associated with the notorious sect — styled on Afghanistan’s Taliban. [continued…]