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

Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, pictured in a video released in October 2014 VOA, CC BY-SA

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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