Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIL is a symptom of weakness, not strength

Gaining Ground?
Gaining Ground?
Image: (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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The Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group this weekend, just hours after it set off five bombs in busy areas of Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria’s largest city, killing 54 people and injuring 146, according to local authorities.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIL through a video shared on a Twitter account that has since been suspended. The news was immediately picked up by international media, with much speculation about what the news could mean. Was one of the West’s greatest fears was nearing reality—that two of the world’s most dangerous and fervent Islamic militants are beginning to work together, potentially creating a global Islamic caliphate spreading from Iraq through the Middle East to northern and western Africa?

Not so fast.

While it is true that Boko Haram is still dangerous, as evidenced by the latest attack, teaming up with ISIL will not necessarily make them stronger or more effective, according to analysts.

“It’s a sign of weakness and desperation and an attempt to boost their members’ morale, image and attract local support,” says Scott Stewart of Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm. ”I really don’t see it as being a big deal changer—no matter what they call themselves, they’re still the same guys. They’ve clearly always been influenced by ISIS [as ISIL is also known].”

“It’s not the first time Abubakar Shekau has done this—remember, when they started taking parts of Nigeria last year, he did proclaim support for ISIL,” Aliyu Musa, an expert on Boko Haram, told Al Jazeera.

In recent weeks, under major pressure from the combined armed forces of Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and a rejuvenated Nigerian Army, Boko Haram’s ambitions as a standalone “caliphate” have been severely curtailed. The Nigerian Army has reclaimed several major towns in the northeast, and has claimed the lives of over 100 Boko Haram members.

Map of Boko Haram towns
Analysis by Stratfor.com
Image: (Stratfor.com)

In the past there were questions about the Nigerian army’s credibility says Stewart. “But it really does seem they’re getting help with logistics from outside advisors,” he said, “which was a critical issue in previous months.”

That drive by the Nigerian military was significantly bolstered by the addition of troops from neighboring countries. The Chadians in particular has been very vocal about their successes, including winning back the key Nigerian town of Dikwa last week (though their pronouncements of success has ruffled feathers in the Nigerian military brass). The involvement of the neighboring countries means there are fewer obvious escape routes for Boko Haram fighters.

With every passing day it appears Boko Haram is on the run, but no one in any position of authority or indeed ordinary citizens in the affected areas should let their guard down anytime soon. The immediate positive effect of the military’s successes will mean more towns will return to their usual leadership structures under the auspices of the Nigerian government. But people in northeast Nigeria will remain vulnerable to violent acts of insurgency by Boko Haram on so-called soft targets for a while to come.