Fake allegiance? ISIS and Boko Haram may not be that close

When Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in Iraq and Syria last year, there were fears over the deadly insurgency in northeast Nigeria

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When Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in Iraq and Syria last year, there were fears the deadly insurgency in northeast Nigeria would take on an international dimension.

The world's deadliest designated terrorist organizations -- notorious for the indiscriminate slaughter of tens of thousands of people -- were now officially linked.

Speculation and concern mounted about a potential influx of foreign fighters to the countries surrounding Lake Chad and an escalation of a previously localized conflict.

But 12 months on that hasn't happened. If anything, Boko Haram appears a considerably weaker force and apparently in disarray after a year-long military counter-offensive.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has only been heard from twice since his audio message published on March 7, 2015 pledging an oath to his ISIS counterpart Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Nigeria's army has since then increasingly claimed crushing blows against the militants and their strongholds plus the liberation of thousands living under Boko Haram control.

This week, dozens of rebels reportedly surrendered because of hunger. Nigeria now wants many of the two million people internally displaced by the conflict to return home.

'Marketing label'

Many analysts have long viewed the announced tie-up as propaganda for both sides. Boko Haram was at the time struggling against regional forces and ISIS suffering setbacks to its territorial ambitions.

"Nothing has changed in the Boko Haram camp since Shekau's declaration," Nigerian security analyst Abdullahi Bawa Wase told AFP.

"It has failed to bring in ISIS fighters. It has not attracted ISIS weapons and cash, which many feared would happen.

"On the contrary, Boko Haram is weaker than it was before the declaration, which is evident from the drastic drop in deadly attacks. Even the rate of suicide bombings has slowed."

A Nigerian security source said ISIS was "only a marketing label which Boko Haram wants to use to deceptively project itself as a formidable terrorist group".

Shekau's declaration and the subsequent re-branding of Boko Haram as "ISIS West Africa Province" or ISWAP caused a reported rift in the Boko Haram hierarchy.

Few, if any, wanted to go against his word but dissenters have reportedly explored closer ties with other militant groups in the wider Sahel region.

Active threat

Some security consultants predict Boko Haram in Nigeria could this year be reduced to a largely criminal, regional threat along the lines of the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa.

But with the United States this week including Nigeria on its updated "Worldwide Caution" list, Western governments clearly still view Boko Haram as a serious threat.

US military drones recently began operating from a base in northern Cameroon while the Pentagon is considering sending military trainers to northeast Nigeria.

Nigeria's secret police meanwhile announced the arrest of seven members of Ansaru, the Boko Haram offshoot that kidnapped several Westerners and which is more aligned ideologically to Al-Qaeda.

The Department of State Services said it had also arrested an ISIS recruiter, two "ISIS agents operating in Nigeria and the West African sub-region" plus four others heading to join ISIS.

Six of those detained were said to be heading or preparing to go to Libya, where Nigerians are said to be in the ISIS ranks in territory it controls.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, who has claimed Boko Haram is "technically" defeated, has increasingly pointed to lawless Libya as a potential security "time bomb" for Europe and Africa.

Focus elsewhere

Yan St-Pierre, of the Modern Security Consulting Group, said there was no doubt that Boko Haram had been reaching out to other militant groups for "business and logistics" in the last year.

Since West African and sub-Saharan fighters operating in Libya are now thought to have dispersed, different groups in the region have been working together to provide funding, equipment and personnel, he added.

"Hence the belief that AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and some BH constellation groups are increasing their collaboration despite BH having officially pledged to ISIS," he said in an email.

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