Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) over the weekend in an audio message. There is some dismissive commentary suggesting that these are merely words that do not heighten the threat. They are missing the fact that this significantly strengthens the Islamic State ideology because the group's expansion is propagandized as the moving of Allah's hand.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau says in the audio that Boko Haram "call[s] on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph and support him in obedience to Allah," referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
"We pledge allegiance because there is no cure of the dissimilarity that Ummah [global Muslim community] have except the Caliphate, we also call all the Muslims to join us in this goodness, because it would enrage the enemy of Allah, by Allah, our gathering under one banner, under one Imam is more heavy to the enemy," Shekau said.
He also said that it is vital that Muslims have a leader [caliph] "that looks after them according to Allah's Rule and fights the enemies of Islam and those who fight the Rule of Allah."
Shekau interestingly does not make the case for al-Baghdadi's qualifications as imam. He instead focuses on the concept of the ummah as one entity that is in need of a leader, especially in a time of jihad like now. The emphasis is on an Islamic leadership vacuum.
The Roots of Boko Haram and the Islamic State
The underpinning of Shekau's ideology is a belief that there must be jihad to protect and advance sharia governance ("Allah's Rule"); a belief that Muslims must strive towards a caliphate and the ummah is essentially one nation.
It is critical to know this starting point. These are the Islamist beliefs that need to be challenged. The much-touted letter condemning the Islamic State that was signed by Muslim leaders around the world (including many Islamists) endorses these beliefs. The letter's rebuttal was limited to tactics, but supported sharia governance.
An example of this broader problem is that the only Islamic scholar Shekau referenced in his declaration is Ibn Taymiyyah. This author has inspired hordes of jihadists and continues to be used in mosques around the world, including in America. For example, the very influential Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia referenced Ibn Taymiyyah when it asked for donations for its prison outreach program.
Boko Haram is estimated to have at least 15,000 members and, according to Amnesty International the number, "is likely to be much higher." The CIA's estimate of the Islamic State’s strength is 20,000 to 31,500. That's probably too low but if we assume that the CIA is correct, then the Islamic State just officially grew its membership by somewhere between 45 and 75 percent.
The Washington Post puts the growth at 30%, a variance attributable to the differing estimates of each group's numbers. Others estimates say Boko Haram only has 6,000 fighters. There may be additional variance due to different definitions of members and fighters. Nonetheless, we're talking about a significant increase in the Islamic State’s membership.
Big Benefits for Islamic State Recruitment and Morale
The merger of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is not just a branding change. It is true that this won't immediately change the size of the territory that either group holds or the number of members they have. The impact it has is ideological.
The Islamic State and other Islamist terrorists thrive off of success because of a widespread belief that the outcomes of wars are decided by Allah. Victories boost morale in any fighting force but they are an ideological vindication for Islamists. Expansion of territory fosters recruitment because it helps the territory holders to persuade audiences that their interpretations are correct.
Boko Haram controls up to 20% of the oil-rich Nigeria. That's obviously a huge addition to the Islamic State caliphate, but it also makes it much harder to fight them ideologically. If the Islamic State loses land, they can limit damage to their credibility by making it up elsewhere.
The Islamic State's quick expansion increases this image of an Allah-endorsed breakthrough exponentially. They can point to advances in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Algeria. They are growing in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. A Salafist group there since 2008 declared allegiance to the Islamic State in December and bombed a French cultural center. The Islamic State's English-language magazines are forcefully challenging Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen and the takeover of the capital by Iranian proxies brightens the Islamic State 's outlook there.
The Pakistani Taliban is also losing commanders and spokesmen to the Islamic State. One spokesman apparently oversees the Pakistani Taliban's English magazine because it just printed an article by him exalting the Islamic State. The group is now strong enough in Afghanistan that it has killed an Afghan Taliban commander. There are stories of clashes between the two groups there and Afghan Taliban defections. A U.S. drone strike killed a former Taliban commander who joined the Islamic State after being freed from Guantanamo Bay.
The Islamic State may even announce a presence in Iran. The Clarion Project discovered that an Islamic State recruiter arrested in Virginia had links to Ansar al-Furqan, an Islamist terrorist group that fights the Iranian regime. This could indicate that the Islamic State appeals to other Sunni Islamist terrorists in Iran.
Why Did Boko Haram Switch Sides?
Boko Haram is (was) an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the main rival of the Islamic State. Recently, the group exhibited a steady drift towards the Islamic State, through both stylistic changes and verbal endorsements. But they have always made sure to compliment Al-Qaeda and have stopped short of pledging loyalty to al-Baghdadi.
Boko Haram seemed to have the best of both worlds in this jihadi contest: It was widely perceived as an Islamic State affiliate, but it did not offend Al-Qaeda.
The pledge by Boko Haram ups the pressure on Al-Qaeda to a new level. The Islamic State’s' loss of Kobane in Syria and some small areas in Iraq is now a distant memory. The narrative of explosive growth for the Islamic State is stronger than ever. and it will increasingly tempt Al-Qaeda supporters to pick the strong horse.
Boko Haram is the biggest Al-Qaeda affiliate to date to switch sides. Al-Qaeda has been desperately trying to compete with the Islamic State by announcing its own caliphate project, opening a new branch in India, attempting large terrorist attacks and using its Somalia affiliate to directly threaten the American mainland. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are also both trying to avoid Muslim rage by condemning over-the-top terrorism like the Pakistani Taliban's attack on a school.
So why did Boko Haram make the formal pledge now? Three reasons stand out that may have contributed to this decision:
Firstly, Shekau may have decided that pledging allegiance to the Islamic State would strengthen his group's appeal among Nigerians. Only a miniscule 2% of Nigerian Muslims view his group favorably. The Islamic State gets numbers higher than that in the Arab countries on which it is wreaking havoc, so Shekau may have calculated that fully adopting the Islamic State brand would grow Boko Haram's supporters in Nigeria.
Secondly, Shekau may want or need to attract foreign fighters. Those who join the Islamic State are motivated both by a desire for jihad as well as for a caliphate. Many Islamists believe they are actually required by Allah to try to move to the caliphate and the battlefields it is presently in.
Shekau may want to attract these caliphate-seeking foreigners by becoming part of that caliphate. This may reflect a concern about manpower. The Islamic State is reportedly increasingly reliant upon foreign fighters due to its alienation of locals and possibly even its members. There are more than a few stories now of the Islamic State executing aspiring deserters. Boko Haram may be experiencing the same dilemma.
Thirdly, Shekau may be worried about Boko Haram supporters deciding to leave Nigeria and join the caliphate. Just recently, the son of a former Nigerian chief justice chose the Islamic State over Boko Haram and moved to Syria.
The merger of Boko Haram and the Islamic State heightens the prospect of an attack in the West by a Boko Haram supporter. Boko Haram undoubtedly endorsed such terrorism, but the group’s sympathizer's focus would have been on Nigeria. The danger is that now, Boko Haram's foreign supporters will follow in the footsteps of their Islamic State’s colleagues.
Islamic State’s supporters usually aspire to join the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. They carry out attacks in the West when they see that option denied. Boko Haram has not put much work into drawing in foreign recruits, but that may change now. And if these foreign recruits are denied access to Nigeria, they may react with terrorism where they reside, just like any Islamic State recruit would.
The Islamic State’s absorption of Boko Haram should serve as a reminder that the common denominator of Islamist ideology can unite many disparate groups. The Islamic State may not have reached its peak yet.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.