With the world’s attention focused on Paris, analysts and intelligence officials are picking up an equally disturbing development on the global jihadi landscape: the growing connection between the Middle East-based Islamic State and the shadowy Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.
The two are divided by some 3,000 miles, and U.S. intelligence sources say they cannot confirm the groups are sharing fighters or coordinating operations. But a growing number of terrorism specialists outside the government say Washington is ignoring a dangerous tactical and ideological convergence between the groups that has been mounting for months.
“Boko Haram is meticulously choreographing the images and symbolism in its videos to Islamic State videos,” said Jacob Zenn, an African and Eurasian affairs analyst at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, who noted the Nigerian group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared his own “caliphate” in Africa just a month after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did the same thing in Iraq.
Shekau also pledged support to al-Baghdadi’s group in a video circulated by Boko Haram in July, and has, in the months since, begun including the jihadi black banner as well as the Islamic State’s de facto anthem, ‘My Umma, Dawn has Arrived,’ to “the musical repertoire on its videos,” said Peter J. Pham, who heads the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
“They play it in the background while they’re sawing a guy’s head off,” said Mr. Pham, referring to a video that appeared on the Internet in October showing a Boko Haram member beheading a captured Nigerian Air Force pilot.
Recent editions of the Islamic State’s glossy propaganda magazine “Dabiq” have also made explicit reference to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Christian women in northern Nigeria as justification for its own kidnapping and sexual enslavement of non-Muslim women in Iraq.
The connections have triggered speculation that Boko Haram — a group that U.S. officials and analysts described just a few years ago as focused purely on the sectarian conflict with Christians in Nigeria — is now bent on embracing the Islamic State’s model for extremist jihad, not only in northern Nigeria but across the heart of Africa.
A Boko Haram video in August declared the group’s intention to recreate an ancient Islamic caliphate that once included parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the group now controls several border crossings between Nigeria and those three nations, as well as some 10 percent of Nigeria’s overall territory — including 14 of 27 local government areas in the northern state of Borno.
Mr. Zenn said this week there has been a noticeable strategy shift by Boko Haram “to seize and hold territory in northeastern Nigeria instead of using its former hit-and-run tactics.”
Boko Haram has been ramping up both the ferocity and tempo of its attacks and reportedly slaughtered as many as 2,000 people in the northeastern town of Baga earlier this month.
With the group’s fighters also carrying out daring strikes on Nigerian and Cameroonian military installations, witnesses have described a campaign that ominously resembles the Islamic State’s methods in northern Iraq.
Survivors in Baga said hundreds of Boko Haram fighters roared into town in a column led by an armored personnel carrier stolen from the military, according to The Associated Press. Some rode on the backs of pickup trucks and on motorcycles, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles and hurling homemade bombs.
However, the extent to which such tactics reflect Boko Haram’s desire to emulate the Islamic State, or reflect its efforts to delegitimize what it sees as the African nation’s pro-Western government, remains a subject of debate.
Eyeing the election
It is most likely that both factors are at play. “What’s happening with Boko Haram right now is a kind of perfect storm,” said Mr. Pham, adding that the group’s ramped-up brutality is clearly tied to Nigeria’s election cycle.
Boko Haram leaders want to expose the failure of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan — a Christian whom polls currently favor to win a second term in February — to respond not only to terrorism but to Muslim grievances in northern Nigeria, Mr. Pham said.
“Who in their right mind is going to queue up to vote when possibly the person in front or behind you is a suicide bomber?” he said, adding, “Whoever loses will say, ‘We would have won had there been better security and people actually came out to vote.’”
But U.S. intelligence officials caution against jumping to conclusions about links between Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
“Just because two groups have similar propaganda doesn’t mean they [are] operationally connected,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation frankly.
The official said Abubakar Shekau has made overtures of support for other foreign jihadi factions in the past, including to al Qaeda, but that the Nigerian is notorious for resisting outside influence. “Shekau is not going to let another group usurp control over Boko Haram,” the official said. “He’s very adamant about maintaining control.”
U.S. officials also cast doubt on Shekau’s declaration of a caliphate as being tied to al-Baghdadi’s creation of the same in the Middle East, noting that Boko Haram leaders for years spoke of creating their own Islamic state in Nigeria, well before the Islamic State’s recent advances in Syria and Iraq.
But others say the recent closeness in the messaging between the two groups may indicate deeper ties.
“In a group like Boko Haram, where the leadership network is heavily guarded, videos are one of the few ways to see what its leadership is thinking,” said Mr. Zenn. “The mimicry of Boko Haram videos — which is the militant group’s only official way of communicating to the outside world — of Islamic State’s videos suggests that Boko Haram’s leadership is paying very close attention to the Islamic State.”
He agreed that Boko Haram has always maintained autonomy, including from al Qaeda, but said the group “nonetheless receiv[ed] training, funding and arms” from al Qaeda’s main North African affiliate al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa between 2011 and 2013.
“Boko Haram has been separated from AQIM as a result of the French intervention in northern Mali in 2013, and is likely now deriving its inspiration from Islamic State’s territorial-based vision,” said Mr. Zenn. “But there are also likely in-person meetings between Boko Haram sponsors and Islamic State sponsors in the Middle East, with offers of funding via money laundering to Boko Haram in return for Boko Haram rhetorical support for Islamic State.”