Two of the world’s best-known and brutal terror groups appear set to join forces following the release of a new audio recording.
The audio message has yet to be authenticated but purports to be from the leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledging allegiance to the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State. The jihadist monitoring group SITE on Saturday quoted Shekau as saying, "We announce our allegiance to the Caliph."
In recent weeks, there have been persistent rumors that the two groups were working together. And the latest propaganda video issued by Boko Haram, showing the execution of two alleged spies, gave indications that the Nigerian group had gotten help from Islamic State with media production and propaganda abilities.
Still, U.S. intelligence officials remained skeptical that Boko Haram and the Islamic State had forged any “deep operational partnership."
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA on Saturday that even if the new pledge was authentic, it was unlikely to change the way either group operates.
“It’s probably more for propaganda purposes than anything else,” the official said, noting Boko Haram had previously pledged allegiance to both core al-Qaida and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, only to “blatantly” disregard subsequent guidance from both groups.
However, the official did not rule out the role money might have played in Boko Haram’s decision-making.
“Boko would not turn down any funding or material support; they are takers who give little in return,” the official said.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed that if the pledge was real, Boko Haram most likely had some extra motivation.
“There is almost certainly money involved in the deal,” he said.
There has been some evidence that despite a decline in revenues, the Islamic State group has been throwing money around in hopes of countering losses on the ground in Iraq.
“Islamic State has been trying to show that it has momentum by luring more affiliates,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “They have a business model that requires them to maintain the perception of momentum.”
What Boko Haram gains from a pledge, other than the possible infusion of money, is less certain.
“They lose quite a bit or risk losing quite a bit from the pledge,” Gartenstein-Ross said, especially as Boko Haram had been benefiting from ties to two al-Qaida linked groups, AQIM and al-Shabab in Somalia.
“Presumably, this pledge means it’s going to lose that network of support,” he said.
Still, just like with the Islamic State reaching out to Boko Haram, timing may have been a factor.
Analysts said Boko Haram’s relationship with the al-Qaida core has been strained since the Nigerian group slaughtered as many as 2,000 people in a series of attacks in January. It is possible the resulting tension may have pushed Boko Haram toward an alliance of sorts with the Islamic State.
Yet analysts and intelligence officials pointed out there are also reasons why any relationship between Boko Haram and the Islamic State could face its own difficulties.
Both groups seek to rule and impose their strict interpretations of Islamic law, and both have embraced using brutal tactics to achieve results. However, U.S. intelligence officials warned that “the Boko Haram version of Sharia [Islamic law] would not necessarily sync with ISIL’s.”
The same officials also cautioned that racism could eat away at any alliance, noting that many in the Islamic State do not see black Africans as their equals.
At the same time, officials said, Boko Haram leader Shekau has never shown any indication he is willing to take orders from anyone and seems bent on doing what he thinks is best for Boko Haram, something that may not play well with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s version of establishing a larger, centrally ruled caliphate.
If the audio message is authenticated, Boko Haram would become the largest group to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. U.S. intelligence officials believe Boko Haram has 4,000 to 6,000 fighters, the vast majority of whom have been recruited from northern Nigeria and from nearby areas with which Boko Haram has ethnic or cultural links.
In contrast, the Islamic State is thought to have 20,000 to 32,000 fighters, many of whom come from across the Muslim world and the West.