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Can a Boko Haram-IS Merger Work?

  • Anne Look

A Chadian soldier peers into a burnt armored vehicle, which the Chadian military say belonged to insurgent group Boko Haram, after the Chadians destroyed it during battle in Gambaru, Feb. 26, 2015.

A Chadian soldier peers into a burnt armored vehicle, which the Chadian military say belonged to insurgent group Boko Haram, after the Chadians destroyed it during battle in Gambaru, Feb. 26, 2015.

Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group on Saturday followed weeks of hints and signs the group was moving in that direction.

Now observers are asking: will the link have any impact?

Analysts say they expect Islamic State to accept Boko Haram’s pledge. Since mid-2014, the links of the Nigeria-based group to IS have evolved from salutation and emulation to what some saw as the beginnings of cooperation.

Boko Haram’s videos got a dramatic facelift this year, featuring slicker graphics and better production quality, more like the IS videos seen online.

Even Boko Haram leader Abukakar Shekau - known for his strident, agitated rants - sported a more polished delivery in a video released last month on the sect’s new Twitter account.

The final step came when Shekau pledged allegiance to Islamic State and said he recognized the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an Arabic audio message.

Bakary Sambe is a Senegalese expert on radical Islamic movements in Africa and author of a forthcoming book on Boko Haram.

He said Shekau's statement, delivered in a solemn, formal tone appears carefully constructed. He says Shekau is repositioning himself as the leader of a movement that goes beyond Nigeria’s borders and aims to build an Islamic state in the Lake Chad Basin.

'Symbolic,' for now

Sambe sees the merger as largely “symbolic,” at least for now. It is good propaganda for both groups, he says, and could spark a trend in sub-Saharan Africa.

Boko Haram would not be significantly altering its DNA or its ambitions by joining IS. The groups already share reputations for brutality and practices such as beheadings and the kidnapping of women and girls. The Nigerian sect has asserted from its start in 2009 that it is fighting to restore Islamic rule in its part of the world.

Recent Boko Haram videos have blended IS iconography with references to Usman dan Fodio, founder of the powerful Sokoto Caliphate in 19th century north-central Nigeria.

Boko Haram has long talked of restoring the Islamic Kanem-Bornu Empire that ruled the Lake Chad Basin for what historians say may have been up to 10 centuries.

Territorial goals

Terrorism analyst Yan St. Pierre says a merger of Boko Haram and IS would complement each other's territorial goals.

"Those territorial goals go back to these very old empires," he said. "In ISIS’s case, that caliphate went all the way to the south of France and spread through, let us say, midway through the Sahel today and then from that point on it used to [go to] the Sokoto and Kanem-Bornu - and this is where Boko Haram comes in and covers the rest of that territory.”

St. Pierre runs a Berlin-based security firm, MOSECON, which he says has monitored communications between Boko Haram and IS. He says those negotiations have focused on “how to split up the financial pie.”

It is unclear how the merger would work in real terms. St. Pierre said unsettled Libya would be the likely corridor for interaction and support.

A key concern now is that IS backing could legitimize Boko Haram in jihadist circles and help the sect attract more fighters, analysts say The group has lost its grip on much of northeastern Nigeria in the past few weeks, in the wake of a joint offensive by Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

The group's power appears to be ebbing - although it has been counted out before, only to come roaring back.

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