Future rise of Boko Haram-ISIS ‘super-caliphate’ uncertain, say experts

Some experts say evidence points to ISIS and Boko Haram cooperating in terms of knowledge sharing and recruitment tactics

Paul Crompton

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Cooperation between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Nigeria-based Islamist militant group Boko Haram is uncertain, say experts, after media reports suggested there were ties between the two groups.

This week, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen told a Senate intelligence committee hearing that there was an “increased intercommunication” between Boko Haram and ISIS, who have both carved out territory to create a medieval-style Islamic caliphate.

Boko Haram is seen as the gravest security threat to Nigeria – Africa’s top oil producer and biggest economy – and its neighbors, while ISIS controls large swathes of territory between Iraq and Syria, and is being targeted by a U.S.-led coalition which rains down air strikes on militant targets.

Some analysts believe that despite sharing a similar ideological base, the links between the two groups are tenuous, in part due to their differing objectives.

Yan St-Pierre, who runs the Berlin-based security firm Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON), claimed earlier this month in a blog post that “there is a connection, but no partnership,” between the groups.

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, St-Pierre said in order for there to be significant future cooperation between the two groups, there would have to be the capacity for expansion, increased internal coordination, and shared aims – something which does not look likely at the moment.

“The actual realization of a ‘sprawling caliphate’ will not occur in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Despite having “superficially the same globalized Jihadi rhetoric,” the two groups lack a “common understanding” of Islam, said Roland Marchal, the Central Africa expert at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research.

“Boko Haram is strongly rooted in the Nigerian northern social fabric, while ISIS should be described as an outcome of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Zarqawi’s ideological inheritance,” Marchal added, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder and leader of the ISIS predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

But some say evidence points to ISIS and Boko Haram cooperating in terms of knowledge sharing and recruitment tactics.

Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think tank and author of a 2014 book about Boko Haram, said “there are real links between the groups, beyond only shared ideology.”

ISIS provides some factions of Boko Haram, which is believed to be less structured and tightly managed than ISIS, with knowledge on how to spread its propaganda and how to bring in new recruits, according to Zenn.

J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank who testified at the first-ever U.S. Congressional hearing on Boko Haram, said that there were “tantalizing clues that should not be lightly dismissed” of an emerging convergence between ISIS and Boko Haram.

Some examples Pham noted were the salutations of Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau’s toward ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, ISIS’s Dabiq magazine referencing Boko Haram’s Chibok schoolgirl abduction to justify its treatment of Yazidi women in Iraq, and the adoption of symbols associated with ISIS by Boko Haram, including the black Islamist flag adopted last summer.

Another sign of convergence between the two groups could be the increasing pursuit of a similar, caliphate-orientated strategy, according to Pham.

“Arguably Boko Haram has gone the farthest among jihadist groups of carving out territorial dominion like Daesh,” said Pham, using the Arabic acronym and pejorative term to refer to ISIS.

“In either case, the situation is very dynamic and bears watching,” he added.

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