In early June, a US official provided insight into one of the fiercely debated topics surrounding extremist Islamists. Speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington, this member of the US state security apparatus declared that "there is no evidence that Boko Haram has received significant operational support or financing from Islamic State (ISIS)." The official further asserted that Boko Haram's March 2015 oath of allegiance to the group, which saw the sect rebrand itself as the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), was designed to boost Boko Haram's Islamist credentials, attract new recruits, and appeal to ISIS' Levant-based leadership for patronage.
Was this definitive proof that ISIS' ties to its largest and deadliest affiliate was nothing more than a public relations exercise? Many remain skeptical, and within reason. Firstly, it would make strategic sense for the US government to understate the extent of linkages between ISIS and its affiliates. In so doing, Washington would dilute the credence of the ISIS slogan of 'baqiya wa tatamaddad,' or 'remaining and expanding' – an axiom which has played an important role in allowing the group to resonate beyond the borders of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
"Logistics between ISIS and its branches are not central to its expansionist model."
Secondly, prior to the June communiqué, the commander of the US military's Special Operations in Africa claimed that evidence of Boko Haram and ISIS collaborating was increasing. Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc cited the April 2016 interception of an arms convoy from an ISIS stronghold in Libya en route to the Boko Haram-embattled Lake Chad region as proof of the growing collaboration between the two groups.
With US officials both reinforcing and debunking the depth of links between the world's deadliest terrorist organisations, perhaps strategically so, which of these contradictory statements holds the most weight?
It is worth noting that direct operational and logistical ties between ISIS' core and its branches are not considered central to its expansionist model. As Aaron Y Zelin explains, the key differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda are in how they pursue their transnationalist goals. According to Zelin, al-Qaeda assimilates local franchises with the intention of using these groups as proxies against Western interests. These proxies carry out acts of violence aimed at discouraging Western governments' patronage of 'apostate' Arab regimes. In return, al-Qaeda provides these groups with financing, recruitment, branding, and publicity to carry out its transnational agenda. This often comes at the expense of the respective affiliates' domestic ambitions.
ISIS, on the other hand, requires only the fealty of its proxies, and that their domestic agendas are ostensibly aimed at instituting Islamist governance where they operate. In doing so, they inherently honour baqiya wa tatamaddad, ensuring that the caliphate is remaining and expanding. This model, Zelin argues, makes it appear as if "ISIS is doing more than it actually is." This 'resource-light' approach to expansion would support theories that ISIS' ties to Boko Haram may be limited to ideological, not operational, synergy.
But what about the claims that Boko Haram and ISIS are increasingly collaborating? Apart from the interception of an alleged Boko Haram-bound arms convoy – a development which occurred on one of the world's major arms trafficking routes – the Maghreb-focused al-Wasat news agency has claimed that as many as 200 Boko Haram fighters were fighting for ISIS in the Libyan city of Sirte. These reports were also reiterated by US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who noted "reports" that Boko Haram combatants crossed the Sahel to join up with ISIS counterparts in Libya. The veracity of these claims, however, remains questionable. ISIS conspicuously failed to announce the alleged collaboration via its Amaq media centre or the Sirte-based al-Tahweed radio station.
The August 2015 arrest of a Lebanese ISIS cleric, Ahmad al-Assir, has also been cited as evidence of growing links between Boko Haram and its Levant-based patrons. Al-Assir, who is alleged to have been the unofficial 'emir' of ISIS in Lebanon, was arrested at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport en route to Nigeria. The purpose of al-Assir's visit to the West African nation remains undisclosed, however. It is speculated that the cleric may have been travelling there to meet up with the Boko Haram leadership.
"Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS, requires only the fealty of its proxies."
While plausible, the truth is that there is no discernible evidence to confirm or disprove the aforementioned hypothesis. Al-Assir may well have been travelling to Nigeria to meet up with shadowy Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and his Shura Council. Or he may have been part of an ISIS envoy deployed to recruit members in the country with Africa's largest Muslim population. Emphasis on ISIS recruitment in Nigeria is perhaps an understated facet of the conundrum: while proof of Boko Haram fighters in Libya is thin on the ground, there is evidence of Nigerians making the laborious trek to the Levant despite having an ISIS affiliate on their very own doorstep.
While much focus on links between Boko Haram and ISIS followed the former's pledge of allegiance to the latter, the strongest evidence off synergy between the Salafi-jihadi movements preceded Shekau's bayat. As noted by Jacob Zenn, Boko Haram's shift into ISIS' orbit came as early as August 2014. Back then, the Nigeria-based group incorporated video and audio imagery, specifically the use of the rayat al-uqab, the black standard or banner, and nasheeds, or chants, associated with ISIS, in its propaganda. In January 2015, Boko Haram launched its al-Urwah al-Wuthqa media wing, whose videos bore the sleek production quality and graphics associated with ISIS, a significant improvement on previous Boko Haram videos. This is not categorical evidence of an operational relationship, but it does suggest that, at the very least, ISIS and Boko Haram had begun sharing a PR department.
"Boko Haram moved into ISIS' orbit as early as 2014."
Theories of the possibility of links between Boko Haram and ISIS are defined by speculation, contradiction and, at the very best, informed supposition. The fact is that we know as little about Boko Haram's external relations as we do about its inner workings. Capturing this point, the US government issued yet another statement on the presumed relationship between ISIS and Boko Haram on 22 June. On this occasion, AFRICOM leader-elect Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser noted that Boko Haram's allegiance to ISIS had fractured the West African group, with one faction breaking away from Abubakar Shekau amid the leader's failure to adhere to ISIS' core tenets. Shekau, whose loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi defines Boko Haram's allegiance to ISIS, is as shadowy as the understanding of the ties between the group. Some claim the emir of Boko Haram is dead, others that he has been toppled. Still others claim he is not a real person, but just a moniker for the group's revolving leadership.