On June 30 2014, the first day of Ramadan, ISIS declared that it was re-establishing the “Caliphate,” long an aspiration of other jihadist groups. In many ways, what the group is doing to Syria and Iraq resembles Boko Haram in Nigeria. But is it so?
Despite the fact that Boko Haram voiced informal support for ISIS, in leadership terms Baghdadi comes directly from the al-Zarqawi entourage which unlike Shekau means that his relationship with al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates is rather strained. It is unlikely that Shekau has not yet made a formal oath of allegiance to Baghdadi, and one questions whether the group would risk alienating its informal relationship Al Qaeda, which has financially supported Boko Haram and trained some of its fighters.
This is an important factor since ISIS is financially more independent than Boko Haram whose funding is pendant on kidnappings, trafficking, and allegedly funds from Nigeria politicians. Truth is that Boko Haram, unlike AQIM and al-Shabaab, has never formally affiliated itself with al-Qaeda. A an impediment to forging a closer collaboration, was Boko Haram attacks against Muslims, a concern that al-Zawahiri had also with Zarqawi and now al-Baghdadi.
ISIS, like Boko Haram seems to be interested in conquering territory rather than launching an al-Qaeda-style global jihad. Boko Haram is taking advantage of the lawlessness and lack of border control in the Nigerian borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, like ISIS which uses the Syrian-Iraqi region as its safe ground. Nevertheless, there is an important difference, Boko Haram operates within Nigeria which faces state failure signs in its Northern region, ISIS on other hand operates in the absence of any state authority. Unlike ISIS who built around military competence that includes excellent command-and-control, sound intelligence, well-prepared logistical support, training, high mobility, and rapid speed of maneuver, Boko Haram does not possess this high level of military tactics.
ISIS is also attracting foreign fighters including Europeans which is not the case for Boko Haram. However, a common and seemingly effective innovation of both groups is to wage battle across several countries and borders, creating multiple logistic centres and sources for recruits, while confounding national responses to them. Unlike ISIS who rejects any connections with Iraqi politicians and whose trigger factors can be attributed first to Nur al-Maliki’s alienation of Sunnis from the government and then the 2003 U.S. invasion, Boko Haram allegedly has connections with Nigerian politicians and its triggering factors are mainly a direct symptom of corruption and economic inequality in Northern Nigeria. Simply put the Boko Haram insurgence is directly and utterly political rather than religious.
From al-Baghadadi’s and Shekau’s perspectives, anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim, including Christians and Shi’a Muslims, are “infidels” and must pay a tax, or jizya, to Muslim rulers or face death or expulsion. However, a common mistake is comparing the ISIS treatment of Shias, Kurds and Yazidis with Boko Haram treatment of Igbos, Yorubas and the Ijaws, while we cannot expound on the differences between sectarian and tribal conflict. In Nigeria, conflicts of a religious nature usually pit the predominantly Christian southern Nigeria against the mostly Muslim north but as noted above this has less to do with religion and more with the control of resources and historic differences between Nigerian tribes, whereas ISIS motives seem to be more religious than political.
Thus far, direct links between the two groups have not been documented, but Boko Haram’s verbal support for ISIS and its modelling aspects of the insurgency in Nigeria on ISIS’s strategy in Iraq and Syria suggests a potential ambition of Boko Haram for a closer relationship–possibly even direct collaboration. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any attempt by Boko Haram to hitch its wagon to ISIS will result in “any material gains” for the Nigerian radical group, given the small swath of territory in which it operates.