Abu Bakr Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State. Baghdadi’s organization claims to rule large portions of Iraq and Syria as a “caliphate.” Shekau’s allegiance was made public in an eight and a half minute audio message released on Twitter. Shekau’s announcement, in Arabic, is accompanied by a simple screen shot showing a microphone and is subtitled in both English and French. An image from the message can be seen above.
Shekau addresses Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim, the name Baghdadi assumed after declaring last year that his organization was now a caliphate. “[W]e announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims…and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease, and to endure being discriminated against, and not to dispute about rule with those in power, except in case of evident infidelity regarding that which there is a proof from Allah,” Shekau says.
“We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and support him, as obedience to Allah and as their application of the absent duty of the era,” Shekau adds. The emir of Boko Haram goes on to explain that he has pledged allegiance to Baghdadi “because there is no cure [for] the dissimilarity” in the Ummah [community of worldwide Muslims] “except the Caliphate.” He adds that should other Muslims pledge allegiance to Baghdadi it will only “enrage the enemy of Allah.”
Shekau’s announcement is not surprising.
US officials told The Long War Journal in February that the Islamic State had dispatched a team to Nigeria to negotiate a more formal alliance.
Boko Haram’s propaganda has been promoted by Islamic State media operatives in recent months. Online jihadists have noted that the videos look increasingly polished, especially when compared to Boko Haram’s amateurish productions of the past. Even Shekau, a notorious thug, appeared to be more composed in videos released this year. Shekau’s organization has also begun calling itself the “Islamic State in West Africa.” And the SITE Intelligence Group reported in February that Boko Haram had released a statement saying its shura council was evaluating a potential oath of fealty. [See LWJ report, Jihadist divisions grow in Nigeria.]
Ansaru, an al Qaeda-allied jihadist group in Nigeria, has denounced Boko Haram more frequently since late last year. There are longstanding differences between Ansaru and its more notorious rival, but Ansaru’s criticisms have become more pointed. In a video released on Feb. 9, Ansaru compared its approach to fighting the Nigerian government to Boko Haram’s. Ansaru’s jihad “is different from Boko Haram[‘s],” which “launches physical and bomb attacks at Muslims and public places such as mosques, markets, and motor parks,” the speaker in the video said. “These acts are contrary to the teachings of Islam. In fact, jihad is prescribed to assist the wounded.”
A wealth of evidence shows that al Qaeda and its regional branches, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Shabaab in Somalia have supported Boko Haram’s operations in various ways. Boko Haram was also reportedly in contact with al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
But while Shekau and other Boko Haram leaders have expressed their affinity for al Qaeda, they never publicly declared their allegiance to either Osama bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri. It is likely that al Qaeda’s senior leadership does not approve of Boko Haram’s methodology for waging jihad. Al Qaeda has issued guidelines as part of their attempt to put restrictions on the jihadists’ violence in the Muslim-majority world. Al Qaeda has been particularly concerned about the impact of operations that kill large numbers of Muslim civilians, thereby alienating segments of the population that al Qaeda hopes to woo to the jihadists’ cause.
Much like the Islamic State, Boko Haram has shown that it is unwilling to put any real limits on its violence. Ansaru, on the other hand, markets itself as the true defender of Nigerian civilians. It is not known if Shekau’s decision to join the Islamic State’s international network will lead to more violent clashes with Ansaru. The Islamic State and its supporters have fought their jihadist rivals elsewhere, especially in Syria.
Shekau is the highest profile jihadist to swear allegiance to Baghdadi on behalf of his group thus far. The Islamic State’s international network has been growing, but its growth has been fueled by lesser-known jihadist personalities. On Nov. 10, 2014, jihadist groups in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen all committed to Baghdadi in a coordinated show of support for the self-proclaimed Caliph. Baghdadi recognized the pledges three days later on Nov. 13. But none of the pledges came from well-known jihadists. Even the jihadist from Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM) who pledged to follow Baghdadi was unidentified. ABM was quickly rebranded as a “province” of the Islamic State and remains a prolific source of terror in Egypt.
Baghdadi has earned the loyalty of other jihadists, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But those jihadists, while deadly, have been mainly second-tier personalities in the jihadists’ world. Disaffected commanders from the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda have all sworn allegiance to Baghdadi. While they have demonstrated a significant operational capacity, none of them are as powerful as their counterparts in the Taliban and al Qaeda. None of them as well-known as Shekau.
Boko Haram’s internal dynamics are opaque, so it is unknown at present if any faction within the group disapproves of Shekau’s move.
However, Shekau is an international pariah and commands a large fighting force, making him a significant ally of Baghdadi’s Islamic State.