Boko Haram’s Pledge to Islamic State, and Implications for West Africa
Centre for Democracy and Development
Facing a loss of nearly all territory under its control, and an overall declining attack radius, Boko Haram (also known as Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah, or Islamic State in West Africa), has diminished in stature since its March 2015 pledge to Islamic State (IS) by leader Abubakar Shekau. In this sense, it appears the group has gained little from its association with the leading international jihadist organisation, and is in fact currently embroiled in a leadership crisis brought on by Islamic State attempts to remove Shekau from his position.
Despite the recent volatility and lack of overt displays of coordination or support outside the realm of media productions, Boko Haram has benefited from its relationship with Islamic State in a number of other areas. In particular, increased linkages with Islamic State actors in Libya, combined with Boko Haram’s growing reputation as a regional center for jihad, are alarming byproducts of the pledge. Thus, far from being irrelevant, Boko Haram’s decision to align with Islamic State has resulted in the spread of extremist ideology and terrorist tactics, with potentially damaging long-term ramifications for the West Africa region.
Before and After the Pledge
Islamic State’s influence figured prominently in the lead up to the March 2015 announcement. This included Boko Haram undertaking territorial conquests for the first time in its history, mirroring Islamic State’s advances in Iraq and Syria months prior, in addition to undergoing significant changes in the quality, content, and dissemination of its messaging. While these changes helped facilitate allegiance to Islamic State, both aspects have suffered greatly in its aftermath. Sustained military pressure under Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, combined with improved regional coordination, has helped to scatter the movement, removing nearly all areas from under its control. Messaging has fared a bit better, with the emergence of a dedicated media outlet in the Media Office of the West Africa Province.
Nonetheless, while quality has remained high, production has been inconsistent, with just two official video releases in 2016. While Islamic State had a demonstrable impact on the conduct of Boko Haram activities prior to its official relationship, these areas of convergence have largely dissipated since. In addition, claims by the U.S. Military that Shekau has ignored an Islamic State directive to curtail the use of child suicide bombers further cast doubt as to the status of official relations between Boko Haram and Islamic State in Syria/Iraq. Rather, the post-pledge results of Boko Haram’s relationship have taken a different form driven by geographic proximity, centering on an emerging relationship with Islamic State actors in Libya, and an increase in individuals throughout West Africa attempting to join the movement.
West Africa Nationals Joining Boko Haram
Following the pledge, little concrete evidence emerged of militants or commanders from Islamic State migrating to the West Africa Province, despite persistent rumours. For example, a May 2016 report from the International Crisis Group noted sources claiming the presence of ‘Maghreb Arabs’ in Boko Haram’s ranks, while a VICE News interview with a former Boko Haram captive described a visit by more than 20 foreign militants who only spoke English and Arabic. An official with the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in May 2016 confirmed that there was information regarding such fighters, but no clear evidence. Thus while the potential exists for some Islamic State militants to have travelled to the Lake Chad Basin region, given the lack of evidence, it does not appear they have arrived in large numbers.
While this influx of foreign fighters may not have materialised, Boko Haram is benefitting in another way, by attracting individuals from throughout the West Africa region. In November 2015, the arrest of Senegalese militant Makhtar Diokhané at the Nigerien border with Nigeria unearthed a previously unknown pipeline of Senegalese militants to Boko Haram. Diokhané, who had fought with Boko Haram, left to set up a cell in Senegal, over 4,000 kilometers away from the group’s epicentre. To aid him in this purpose, he asked four other Senegalese who had been fighting in Sambisa Forest to return home; the detention of these four during a routine border inspection for carrying counterfeit money led Diokhané back to the region, and ultimately resulted in his detention as well.
The Diokhané case led to further arrests in Senegal, including Diokhané’s wife and sister-in-law, the next of-kin of a deceased Senegalese militant who had received financial support from Boko Haram, and imams accused of supporting terrorism. Alioune Badara Ndao, an imam from Kaolack, reportedly had already been under surveillance; after his arrest it was revealed he maintained communications with Boko Haram members via satellite phone, and had been visited by Diokhané on multiple occasions.
The Diokhané case was worrying for a few different reasons. Previously there had not been any reports of Senegalese fighting on behalf of Boko Haram, but the arrests demonstrated that although limited overall, this phenomenon was not restricted to a lone individual or two. In addition, while the original intent of these Senegalese may have been to support Boko Haram in its battle in the Lake Chad Basin region, this clearly evolved to bringing the fight back home, by exporting ideology and terrorist tactics. The case provided further evidence that Senegal is beginning to come under the strain of radical extremism, after many years of presumed immunity. In addition to Diokhané’s group, 10 to 30 Senegalese have been reported to be fighting for Islamic State elements in Libya, while others have been spotted in Syria and Iraq.
Diokhané’s efforts were not an isolated episode and have since been followed by other incidents of West African nationals attempting to join Boko Haram. A group of four, two from Guinea-Bissau and one each from The Gambia and Guinea, were reportedly arrested in Mali in January 2016 while attempting to reach Nigeria in support of Boko Haram, and in February another eight Senegalese were arrested in Mauritania while pursuing a similar objective. Under interrogation, those arrested claimed that 23 Senegalese had joined Boko Haram since 2015, while another previously arrested Senegalese national further asserted that some Mauritanian citizens had joined Boko Haram as well.
Islamic State has encouraged those who wish to join its project but cannot make it to Syria or Iraq, to seek out nearby wilayats (provinces) instead. For example, during his acceptance of Boko Haram’s pledge in March 2015, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al- Adnani remarked that this relationship resulted in “a new door for you to migrate to the land of Islam and fight.” This sort of legitimacy and encouragement likely explains the regional influx of individuals West African Nationals Joining Boko Haram attempting to pursue jihad by joining Boko Haram, and may lead to similar attempts by others in the future.
The influx of these like minded individuals portends disconcerting prospects regarding the spread of extremist ideologies, terrorism tactics, and ultimately increased attacks in the region. Thus far these cases represent a minimal trend, but Makhtar Diokhané’s plan indicates how the desire to return home to unleash a new front can easily lead to expansion outside of the Lake Chad Basin region. At any rate, this creeping regionalisation is a concrete result of the increased legitimacy Boko Haram enjoys in jihadist circles, brought about by its pledge to Islamic State, and serves as one of the more subtle outcomes of this association.
Towards a Wider West African Threat?
There is a risk that Boko Haram will become a regional incubator of jihadist ideology and terrorist tactics. This could be caused by Boko Haram’s deepening relations with Islamic State in Libya, combined with the burgeoning attraction of likeminded individuals from more distant countries in West Africa – although it remains to be seen how the latest leadership rift might affect such processes. At any rate, recent overall actions do not suggest an official attempt to remake the organisation into a wider West African threat, in contradiction to what its new Islamic State-inspired title would suggest. In addition, Boko Haram is very much on the defensive, rendering unclear the level of resources it could allocate towards actively expanding its struggle outside the Lake Chad Basin. Rather, the influx of militants from West Africa and assistance from Libya points to the sect utilising external connections for internal purposes. Previous outside support carried a similar objective, with Boko Haram exploiting training and tactics primarily to further its own situation within Nigeria and adjoining areas.
Nevertheless, an expansion of terror could be the result of recent dynamics, regardless of whether part of an official plan or not. One of the Senegalese fighters claimed leadership support towards the establishment of a cell in Senegal. Even without official backing, militants may eventually return home with designs of bringing back their jihad with them. The intermingling of West African nationals with returned militants from Libya could aid in this project, utilising the Lake Chad Basin as a jumping off point for the dissemination of ideology and tactics from Libya to the West Africa region.
Any Boko Haram-related expansion would likely represent a very different threat from the advancing
regional attacks by al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and associated militants in late 2015 and early 2016. Major attacks by those militants focused on hotels, restaurants, or other areas where foreign nationals congregate, combined with messaging directed at Western nations such as France. Boko Haram violence under Shekau, however, has been more rooted in local concerns, directed at regional security forces, government institutions, generally anyone who disagrees with its outlook, and in recent years, civilian soft targets. Al Qaida leadership in contrast has sought to minimise civilian casualties in recent years in order to win the public relations battle, and instead focus on Western presence.
The targeting of civilians in particular may be a particularly delicate issue for external expansion. Prior to 2013 and the emergence of vigilante groups, Boko Haram did not attack civilians in the way that they currently do. Since then, the group has lost a degree of sympathy and support, indicated by the need to resort to forced recruitment in recent years.
New purported Boko Haram leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi has also expressed displeasure at the targeting of Muslim civilians, but it remains to be seen if he can consolidate his hold on the movement to the point where attack patterns are drastically altered, and with any potential externally affiliated groups following suit.
A precedent for potential expansion in West Africa could be found in the development of a Boko Haram cell in N’Djamena, Chad in June-July 2015. This is a presence significantly deeper than previous activity in the country, which used to be confined to around Lake Chad. During the course of four violent incidents, militants attacked three police institutions and a market with suicide bombs, revealing a preference for localised targeting and a reliance on male suicide bombers. The limits to this type of expansion were also revealed, however, following the arrest of over 70 militants and little violence thereafter, demonstrating the difficulty of replenishing militant ranks in the face of an effective security response.
In this sense, the N’Djamena case symbolises the success of efforts to mitigate potential advances thus far, giving reason for cautious optimism. Careful policing, surveillance, and coordination prevented various militants from reaching Nigeria and thwarted Diokhané’s group in its return to Senegal as well.Nonetheless, concerns exist that more activity may be occurring unchecked beneath the surface, and the uptick in such dynamics must be accompanied by an increase in dedicated resources throughout the region.
Regional coordination and border patrolling is particularly important, given the cross-border nature
of the threat. Cooperation not only between neighbors, but also non-contiguous countries in the region, is necessary to disrupt the flow of militants from countries as far apart as Senegal and Nigeria. In addition, Boko Haram relations with Islamic State actors in Libya have leveraged sparsely populated and lightly patrolled territories in between. Increased efforts aimed at uncovering travel routes can help prevent the movement of not just more supplies, but also the militants themselves. Augmented regional intelligence sharing should also help turn national boundaries into areas of militant detection, rather than a means of evasion. The proper interrogation of detained militants can also provide an important source of information on group activities. In addition to helping disrupt networks, the study of detained militants should enable a deeper profile on regional recruitment, in order to better understand the drivers and appeal of radical ideology, and therefore design more effective programs to counter this attraction.
Furthermore, while the appeal of Islamic State propaganda may be strong, a large portion of the radicalisation process likely occurs at the community level. Adequate but not intrusive monitoring, such as in the case of Ndao in Senegal, along with the maintenance of positive community linkages by governments throughout the region, can help serve as an early warning system for reported local level changes, prior to the flight of militants abroad or the introduction of violence at home.
Boko Haram’s pledge to Islamic State has not resulted in any major changes on the surface aside from the recent leadership predicament, but the sect has benefited more subtly from an increased partnership with affiliated actors in Libya, and a rise in willing recruits from countries further away than typical sources. In this sense, the increasing regionalisation of Boko Haram, regardless of whether official policy or not, has been a side effect of its association with Islamic State. These dynamics in turn may threaten the entire West Africa region, with Boko Haram both importing and exporting jihadist ideology and terrorist tactics, and the Lake Chad Basin region serving as a crucial link in the chain of transmission from Libya to beyond.
Nonetheless, the threat is long-term rather than immediate. Western Europe is beginning to feel the
backlash from its own foreign fighters who travelled to Syria or Iraq a few years ago, while AQIM’s current push in West Africa was predicated by years of groundwork. But while the threat is currently
limited and unlikely to result in immediate violence, if left unchecked, it may contribute to the continued advance of radical ideology and terrorist violence that has started to afflict the West Africa region, with damaging consequences for years to come.
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