Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate and an Islamic state in Nigeria yesterday mirrors the declaration made three months ago by the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
It was al-Baghdadi's Islamic State that last week shocked the world with the release of the video execution of American journalist James Foley.
Yesterday, as Islamic State militants seized a Syrian military base, Boko Haram’s leader, Abu Bakr Shekau in Nigeria posted his own video declaration of an Islamic state in the northwest corner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
Nigeria’s armed jihadists are evolving from years of hit-and-run tactics to try to capture and occupy towns, according to analysts.
Nigerians in the northern town of Buni Yadi began fleeing Boko Haram late last week. That follows reports of Boko Haram’s take-over of government buildings in Gwoza – a town on Nigeria’s western border with Cameroon - where the militants placed one of their own on the throne of a local emir.
The Nigerian government denies Boko Haram’s occupation claims.
Nigerian rebels watch events in Iraq
Jacob Zenn of Washington D.C.’s Jamestown Foundation is among a number of observers of Nigeria’s radical Muslim force who sees potentially stronger links between various jihadist forces in Africa – including Boko Haram - and the greater political ambitions of the Islamic State in Iraq. Zenn and others also see al-Baghdadi’s jihadists in Syria and Iraq competing with the terrorists of al-Qaida for the allegiances of Africa’s Islamist rebels.
Baghdadi’s military fortunes in Syria and Iraq follow his stated intention to create a caliphate, a movement to expand geographic control under a supreme religious and political leader who acts as a caliph reminiscent of Muslim rulers of a 17th-century Ottoman Empire.
Zenn has watched Nigeria’s armed extremists try to carve a small Islamic empire out of Borno state in the Nigeria’s north. He thinks Shekau and his heavily-armed fighters are paying close attention to Baghdadi’s progress in far-away Syria and Iraq.
“It seems that the declaration of the caliphate by ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would be well-received by a group like Boko Haram that has not been declared a formal affiliate by al-Qaida,” said Zenn. “Because you see around the world the groups that al-Qaida did not reach out to, all appearing to side more with ISIS probably because they felt that Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida since bin Laden’s death, didn’t sufficiently cozy up to them.”
Boko Harm and other far-flung jihadist movements now have a choice to make. Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution fellow at their Middle Eastern studies center, says Baghdadi’s Islamic State is far different than Boko Haram and more of a political model than what Hamid calls "al-Qaida Central."
“ISIS has been very good at creating facts on the ground,” said Hamid. “And they do control large swaths of territory and in that sense what we’re seeing is unprecedented. I mean al-Qaida never really controlled territory in that way and were never so ambitious as to go around declaring caliphates. So, in this sense, ISIS is a bit of an upstart and they’re very ambitious; probably too ambitious and I think they will probably fall under the weight of their own ambition.”
The ambitions of al-Baghdadi and his followers may soon confront major world powers that could curb those ambitions. Zenn suggests that ISIS is appealing for help from Boko Haram and others jihadists.
Boko Haram may be more successful
Zenn says the Iraqi version of an Islamic State has larger opposition than Boko Haram. “And that may be why ISIS is reaching out through the scraps of the al-Qaida network - like Boko Haram, like the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, like the Indonesian group in Sulawesi.
“But in terms of Boko Haram following the ISIS model of floating in the border regions and then attacking deeper into the countries, I think that Boko Haram could likely have more success in West Africa,” Zenn said. “There are fewer mid- and major-powers that can roll back a group like Boko Haram if it sought to carry out a blitzkrieg through countries like Chad, Cameroon and Niger.”
The attraction of a modern caliphate
If al-Baghdadi’s followers have a greater challenge ahead of them, Hamid argues that other jihadists could benefit from studying what this proposed caliphate is trying to build. Hamid describes the new vision – even a kind of governance - offered by al-Baghdadi and his followers.
“Now, Boko Haram is more of an old-school terrorist group in the sense that it is all about destroying and there isn’t much of a sense of vision there as to what to build in its place,” said Hamid. “This is where ISIS – they’re not the old al-Qaida approach of the early 2000’s which was very much focused on killing, on terrorist attacks - this is where other extremist groups like Boko Haram are watching ISIS very closely.
“It does force them to think about these issues more,” said Hamid. “And not just about a caliphate in a general sense, but also, ‘How do you hold territory?’ ‘How do you govern?’ ‘Should you be governing?’ ‘How do you provide services to the constituents in the territory that you hold?’”
Boko Haram’s African support network
Boko Haram owes much to al-Qaida Central, Zenn said.
“Their ties within northern Africa and the Gulf are considerable," he said. "Most directly, it has been groups like al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb based in countries like Mali, Algeria and Mauritania that have provided expertise to Boko Haram.”
They enjoy “very close relations” with import-export businessmen in Cameroon and received training from militants in Libya, Zenn said, training from al-Shabab and probable financial support from groups in Sudan, the Gulf states and the United Kingdom.
“It’s certainly a wider network than just Nigeria, even if the focus of the concentration of its attacks is on Nigeria,” Zenn said.
A contest between powers and personalities
“Al Qaida Central has been clear about distancing itself and disavowing ISIS," Hamid said. “It’s not just about ISIS’s methods but it’s also about personalities and power. It’s also about who controls this Islamic jihadist movement that al Qaida represents. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, who obviously replaced Usama bin Laden as the head of al Qaida Central, is not someone who is nearly as charismatic and doesn’t have the same level of respect as bin Laden did. So in that sense there is more room for other competitors to move into that space.
Boko Haram and its counterparts in other parts of African may make a choice as to which jihadist forces to follow, should the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or al-Qaida survive and prosper. So far, Boko Haram has been successful in tearing down the social and political structures of Borno State.
With little effective resistance to date from the Nigerian military - where thousands have died in three northern states of Nigeria and an estimated 200 school girls remain missing after being abducted by the terrorists more than four months ago - Boko Haram’s leaders may not need to follow the Islamic state or al-Qaida.