March 9, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State 2.0
Boko Haram’s leader Abu Bakr Shekau has publicly pledged his group’s allegiance, or bay’at, to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In theory, this would create an unholy alliance between the world’s most active and savage terrorist groups, but it is likely not that simple. Boko Haram, which has tried before to align itself with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, is under unprecedented pressure from regional militaries showing far more persistence and capabilities. For Boko Haram, joining the most infamous terrorist group could provide a much-needed boost in morale and publicity, something every extremist group craves. The more interesting side of the equation is whether or not the Islamic State accepts and how it would utilize the pledge.
From its inception, the Islamic State has concentrated on consolidating control over territories in Iraq and Syria, culminating in last summer’s announcement of a Caliphate. With a Caliphate to defend and run, the group called for fighters and then for families to come to Raqqa, Syria, its capital. This first version of the Islamic State was focused on expanding from within, radiating out from its center.
Since then, the group has faced increasing pressure from many actors, and has, in effect, rebooted itself into the Islamic State 2.0. It still encourages people to come join the Caliphate, but it has also sent fighters from a battlefield in which they are badly needed—Iraq and Syria—to establish noncontiguous states (or wiliyats) in places such as Libya, Egypt's Sinai, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and perhaps Tunisia and Yemen. These wiliyats don’t follow the mold of previous al-Qaeda affiliates, which serve more as branches rather than states. The process of establishing a wiliyat is also complicated, demonstrating the need for evidence that Boko Haram’s shura council has voted along with Shekau in favor of the bay’at.
It will be of great interest to see how much support and fighters this Islamic State 2.0 invests in the creation of these wiliyats, as they draw from the core Caliphate but also spread the group’s message and project power beyond its beleaguered homeland. Boko Haram has a high ‘buzz’ factor that terrorist groups crave, far more so than the smaller, lesser-known groups that have also pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Furthermore, it has demonstrated compatible savagery and the ability to take over entire towns and villages, making it a good fit for the Islamic State, at least in those categories. Other factors, though, ranging from the ideological to simple racism, might prove problematic.
The operational and strategic impact of a merger of Boko Haram into the Islamic State remains to be seen, but the tactical consequences could increase enthusiasm and support for both groups. An Islamic State that includes Boko Haram would be a propaganda victory for both, and would be the former’s most significant expansion by large measure. Boko Haram could benefit from Islamic State-provided training and weapons, but perhaps the biggest benefit would come from more effective propaganda machinery—which the Islamic State has nearly perfected. Anything to augment the group’s fighting numbers, and turn more disaffected Nigerians into tacit or overt supporters or members, bodes well for the group and poorly for attempts to contain and degrade it. The group has already upgraded its media efforts, mimicking those of the polished Islamic State, by incorporating better choreography and imaging.
If the Islamic State accepts the professed allegiance, it would also present the public at large with the perception of an out-of-control situation, where a super-sized terrorist group devours entire regions. Even if the groups unite to a degree, the reality will be far more muted, but these groups are looking to shape perception in order to change their present realities. The specter of the two most infamous terrorist groups in the world joining forces is exactly the menace they want to create.
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