June 20, 2016: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jacob Zenn in Foreign Policy discuss whether Boko Haram will scrap its alliance with the Islamic State in favor of al-Qaeda.
When Boko Haram pledged loyalty to the Islamic State in March 2015, it seemed to signal that the jihadi world was bending in the direction of the self-proclaimed caliphate. At the time, Boko Haram held more territory than any other Islamic State “province” outside the group’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq, and it looked poised to expand from Nigeria into Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The pledge of allegiance was also seen as a deep blow to al Qaeda, the traditional jihadist standard bearer, with whom Boko Haram had enjoyed a long if undeclared relationship. Islamic State, itself once an al Qaeda affiliate, was not just eating into al Qaeda’s potential pool of recruits — it was attempting to gobble up entire branches of the organization.
The tables have turned dramatically since then. Today, al Qaeda has an opportunity to bring Boko Haram back into its orbit, a move that would cripple the Islamic State’s already faltering global expansion efforts. Factions within the Nigerian militant group appear to have significant buyer’s remorse when it comes to the group’s defection to the Islamic State’s camp. Despite the occasional spectacular attack or bloody offensive, Boko Haram today is substantially weaker, and controls much less territory, than when the group was rechristened as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province. And its relationship with the group bears a healthy portion of the blame.
Consider Boko Haram’s presence in Borno State, which is where the group was founded and where it has carried out more than 75 percent of its attacks. Boko Haram was the dominant military force in Borno State at the time of its pledge to the Islamic State, and it was bearing down on the regional capital of Maiduguri. Today, by contrast, it reportedly holds only two medium-sized towns in the state, although large parts of northern Nigeria remain insecure. The loss of territory has coincided with a decline in high-profile attacks — there hasn’t been one in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, since October 2015 — and the arrest of a number of the group’s key leaders by Cameroonian security forces. Meanwhile, the escape last month of one of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped two years ago from the town of Chibok — and Boko Haram’s apparent willingness to negotiate the release of the others — suggests that the group is finding it difficult to hold hostages as its stronghold shrinks and the pressure from a regional military coalition grows.
Boko Haram’s current weakness can be attributed in part to its decision to join the Islamic State. As the militaries of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad bore down on the Nigerian Islamists last year, one might have expected the group’s fighters to find shelter outside their home country. This is what they did the last time Boko Haram came under significant pressure from the Nigerian military. From 2009 to 2010, when Nigerian security forces were in the midst of a bloody crackdown on Boko Haram members and sympathizers, the militant group was able to melt away into neighboring countries as well as into more distant troubled states — such as Mauritania, Sudan, and Somalia — with the help of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and to a lesser extent the Somali militant group al-Shaabab, which publicly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012. But since it can no longer rely on the support of al Qaeda, which is the dominant force in the Sahel region, Boko Haram has lost its nearby safe havens and been forced to seek help in far-away Libya, where the Islamic State has carved out a de facto regional capital in Sirte. (Even this base is not assured, since Islamic State in Libya has come under increasing pressure from Libyan government-allied and anti-Islamic State forces.)
Even Boko Haram’s propaganda efforts have faltered since it hitched its wagon to the Islamic State. In early 2015, the group’s media capabilities took a noticeable leap forward, almost certainly as a result of the Islamic State’s assistance. But since then, Boko Haram’s propaganda department has actually taken several steps backward. So far this year, the group has released only two videos of unimpressive quality: one affirming loyalty to its leader, Abubakar Shekau, and to Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and another chronicling an attack in Bosso, Niger. And in an apparent slight, videos released by the Islamic State’s flagship province in Libya no longer encourage West African fighters to wage jihad in Nigeria. Instead, they call on these foreign militants to travel to Libya. Meanwhile, al Qaeda affiliates have upgraded their media capabilities across the board. Improvements in the propaganda produced by AQIM, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Syria-based Nusra Front are striking.
Boko Haram’s record of failure as an Islamic State affiliate offers al Qaeda an opening to win back its former partner –or at least persuade it that its allegiance to the Islamic State has become more of a liability than an advantage. Elsewhere al Qaeda has contested the Islamic State’s encroachments on its territory through a combination of military force, intelligence work, crafty propaganda, and effective coalition building. Take for example its role in bringing about the implosion of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Afghanistan. After the IMU joined the budding caliphate in August 2015, the Taliban, which has resumed close cooperation with al Qaeda, launched a major offensive against its erstwhile ally that killed over 100 IMU fighters, as well as its emir, Usman Ghazi. On Twitter, one IMU supporter marveled that “what America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours.”
Al Qaeda has likewise helped publicize and accelerate the internal implosion of the Islamic State’s Yemen affiliate, which at its height managed to carry out spectacular attacks on Yemeni soil but never controlled territory. That affiliate has been wracked by several waves of defections, including one in December 2015 that saw some 70 fighters and senior leaders announce their break with the group on Twitter. AQAP, which until recently controlled a considerable amount of coastal territory, capitalized on the flop by tirelessly working to publicize these defections from the Islamic State. For example, it posted a video of one Islamic State defector detailing the group’s fabrications in its propaganda videos, including its use of actors to play dead enemy soldiers. Particularly amusing to the online jihadi community was the defector’s claim that the group used the soft drink Vimto as fake blood.
The stage has been set for a similar al Qaeda resurgence in Nigeria. One potential strategy for the group would involve building up a new pro-al Qaeda jihadi network in Nigeria that is designed to eclipse Boko Haram or pry away its members. To this end, AQIM could try to unite its Fulani members in Mali with Fulanis in Nigeria under a charismatic figure like Amadou Koufa, the leader of the Massina Liberation Front, an AQIM-created Malian faction that counts many West African Fulanis among its ranks. This could achieve a unified AQIM framework that stretches from Mali to Nigeria, allowing the group to exploit the grievances of Muslim Fulani herdsman, who have long felt abandoned and exploited by the governments of both countries.
Al Qaeda might also choose to negotiate directly with the leaders of friendly Boko Haram elements like the splinter group Ansaru, which could serve as a vehicle for sparking mass defections from Boko Haram. Although the top Ansaru commander, Khalid al-Barnawi, was arrested earlier this year, there are still key figures within the splinter group who maintain high-level contacts with AQIM and al-Shabaab, such as Mamman Nur, who masterminded the 2011 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. The task of prying away Boko Haram’s foot soldiers might be made easier by Shekau’s alleged flight to Libya, together with a key cadre of Islamic State loyalists, after facing increased pressure from the Nigerian-led regional military coalition.
Should Boko Haram ultimately turn its back on the Islamic State, it would send an enormous shockwave through the global jihadi movement. The Nigerian militant group is by far the highest-profile organization to leave an existing terrorist network to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. If it were to suddenly cut ties with the Iraq- and Syria-based caliphate, it would send a powerful message to other al Qaeda affiliates toying with the idea of Islamic State membership: Baghdadi’s caliphate is a dying brand. But as brutal as it is, the Islamic State’s implosion would not herald an overall diminishment of the global jihadi threat. On the contrary, it would underscore that an even thornier problem remains: Al Qaeda, during its time under the radar, has become an even more formidable foe.