In March of this year, the violent Nigerian sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The pledge has elicited questions about what kind of material support the Islamic State may provide to Boko Haram, especially in terms of fighters, training, and money. These questions tap into an older inquiry about what connections Boko Haram has/had to other jihadist organizations – for years before the pledge, there were allegations of operational ties to al-Qa’ida’s affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And these questions also take on added significance now, as Boko Haram is being forced to chart a new course in the wake of its recent territorial losses to Nigerian and regional armies.
When assessing the strength of Boko Haram’s outside connections, it’s important to weigh the evidence carefully. News organizations and analysts all have the temptation to seize on small details or perceived trends as evidence of growing operational ties. But the details may not be as significant as analysts presume, and the trends may not be new.
Example 1: An article headlined “With Help from ISIS, A More Deadly Boko Haram Makes a Comeback.”
The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town [Marte, Borno State].
All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”
What caught my eye here was first, the phrase “unleashing female suicide bombers” – which suggests that this is new. Not really. I basically stopped reading after that, since the article’s credibility evaporated when it began to present the old as evidence of the new. But to go further, it is certainly possible that Boko Haram members are training in Iraq. Yet are Kurdish websites really the most reliable sources? And is this really evidence of an Islamic State-supported Boko Haram comeback?
Example 2: An article headlined “Captured video appears to show foreign fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram.” When we read the article, we find that the video shows “a man speaking in Sudanese Arabic” and wearing “a white turban.” Another man wears “a black turban.” Are these men fighters? Are they Sudanese? Are they Nigerians who spent time in Sudan? Do they have anything to do with the Islamic State? The answers to some of these questions may well be yes, but I would argue that we can’t know yet – and so we shouldn’t over-interpret the limited evidence that is available. It’s better to withhold judgment.
As a final note, I would say that there has long been an assumption in many quarters that Boko Haram simply could not be homegrown, or that Nigerians could not possibly be the masterminds of Boko Haram’s violence. Well, why not? Nigeria is home to over 170 million people (that’s more than Iraq, Syria, and Algeria put together, with at least 70 million residents to spare). Is it inconceivable that some Nigerians would know how to make bombs, plan sophisticated attacks, conquer territory, and produce propaganda? I think the alliance with ISIS is real and that it will have some effect, especially in the sphere of media and rhetoric, where there is observable and consistent evidence of influence. But I am suspicious of the analysts who seem to need to find an Arab hand behind any and all terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa.