In an audio message posted online Saturday, Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group. The statement comes on the same day as three bombs exploded in northeastern Nigeria and comes as both militant groups are increasingly under pressure from regional forces.
Boko Haram Claims Allegiance
In the audio message, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau stated “we announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims, Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim al-Husseini al-Qurashi,” referring to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Shekau also called on “…Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” The eight-minute speech, in which Shekau is not shown, was posted on a Twitter account that is used by Boko Haram and subtitled in English, French and Arabic. The move of pledging allegiance is no surprise however it comes at a time when Boko Haram is under growing pressure as regional forces have been targeting towns and villages under the militant group’s control. Furthermore, the announcement can be seen as an almost desperate move by an Islamist group attempting to remain relevant as it increasingly looses territory in northeastern Nigeria.
While Shekau had previously mentioned al-Baghdadi in video messages, until now he stopped short of pledging formal allegiance; however there have been increasing signs that the militant group has been seeking closer ties with IS. Last year, months after IS grabbed control of swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq, and announced the establishment of a caliphate, Shekau announced that the captured town of Gwoza, in Borno state, was part of a caliphate. In recent weeks, Boko Haram has also been increasingly producing videos that resemble IS group propaganda. This includes a video that was released last week, which purported to show the beheading of two men. This video demonstrates that the militant group is increasingly seeking inspiration from global militant networks, including IS.
While it is difficult to assess the immediate effect of Shekau’s statement, the announcement of an allegiance comes as both militant groups are increasingly being targeted by regional forces.
Boko Haram’s announcement comes as the militant group has been forced out of their captured territory by the Nigerian army and regional allies, a move that has forced the militant group to return to its previous campaign of urban guerrilla warfare. Similarly, while IS seized territory across Iraq and Syria last year, its expansion in its core territories has been stalled by local forces that have been backed by the United States. The announcement of allegiance is something that both groups need at the moment and will likely aid them in raising morale amongst their fighters and garner further global attention. For Boko Haram legitimacy will likely help its commanders in recruiting, funding and logistics as the militant group seeks to expand its operations in West Africa, particularly into neighbouring Cameroon and Chad. In turn, IS receives more legitimacy as a global caliphate. However the allegiance between Boko Haram and IS will only be official when an IS leader, such as spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani, issues a statement – a move that may occur in the coming days.
Boko Haram Attacks Maiduguri
Early Saturday, four bomb blasts killed at least fifty-eight people in the northeastern city of Maiduguri in what was the worst attack since Boko Haram attempted to seized the town in two major assaults earlier this year. Female suicide bomber are believed to have acted for the group, launching a series of attacks in markets while another attack was reported at a bus station.
On Saturday, a woman with explosives strapped to her body blew herself up at about 11:20 am (1020 GMT) at Baga fish market in the Borno state capital city, Maiduguri. About an hour later, another blast targeted the Post Office shopping area, which is located near the market. A further series of bombs targeted the popular Monday Market, causing chaos as locals voiced anger at security forces who struggled to control the scene. Just after 1:00 pm, a fourth blast targeted a used car lot, which is located next to the busy Borno Express bus terminal. In a fifth incident, a car bomb exploded at a military checkpoint 75 kilometres outside the city. A soldier and two members of a civilian defence unit were injured. Sources have reported that the attack had wanted to reach Maiduguri.
The fear of further attacks prompted the closure of all businesses in Maiduguri. Sources have indicated that the second and third attacks were also carried out by suicide bombers however police officials have not provided any details. Borno’s police commissioner Clement Adoba indicated that the death toll stood at 58 “for the three locations” and 143 wounded, however officials have warned that the death toll is likely to rise over the coming days. Borno state’s Justice Commissioner Kaka Shehu has blamed the attack on Boko Haram, stating that it is a response to the defeats that they have suffered in recent weeks.
A UK-based activist group, which is monitoring the conflict in Syria and recent territorial gains by Islamic State (IS), reported Friday that Iraqi pilots who have joined IS are now training IS members in Syria to fly three captured fighter jets.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), witnesses have reported seeing planes being flown around the Al-Jarrah military airport, which is located east of the contested city of Aleppo. Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the SOHR, disclosed Friday that IS militants were using Iraqi officers, who were pilots under ex-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to train fighters in Syria. He added, “people saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport and they are flying in the skies outside the airport and coming back.”
While it remains unknown just how many Iraqi pilots have defected and what the trainees’ previous level of familiarity with flight is, it is known that IS has three planes in its possession, which they captured earlier on the ground in Aleppo and Raqqa.
If IS is indeed using Iraqi pilots to train its fighters, such a move could have a major impact on global security, and could see the militant group attempt to hijack planes in Europe and the United States. With officials in Europe already warning that a number of EU nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside IS militants, the jihadist group could be training militants with EU passports on how to hijack planes and carryout terrorist attacks similar to 9/11.
Meanwhile Iraqi forces have launched an attack on IS militants stationed near Tikrit. The Iraqi government reported Friday that its troops have gained ground to the northern and western regions of Tikrit, effectively cutting an important IS supply route. The city is amongst those areas that were seized by IS in Syria and Iraq earlier this year.
Kurdish forces, backed by US-led air strikes, are continuing to fight the militants in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. On Friday, US-led warplanes targeted jihadists attacking Kobane as Pentagon officials disclosed that despite a recent wave of deadly bombings in Baghdad, there was no imminent threat to the capital city.
Pentagon officials announced Friday that despite recent advances made by the militant group to the west of Baghdad, IS was not poised for an assault on the capital city. The battle for the town of Kobane has been seen as a major test for the US-led coalition’s air campaign and whether it will be able to successfully push back the militant group.
Two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent branches in North Africa and Yemen issued an unprecedented joint statement Tuesday, calling for jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq to join forces against the threat emanating from the US-led coalition that is targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters in the region. The statement comes as a supporter of IS militants warned of attacks against the United States and its allies.
Al-Qaeda Branches Issue Joint Statement
Two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent branches in North Africa and Yemen issued an unprecedented joint statement Tuesday, calling for jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq to join forces against the threat emanating from the US-led coalition that is targeting Islamic State (IS) fighters in the region.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) urged their “brothers” in Iraq and Syria to “stop killing each other and unite against the American campaign and its evil coalition that threatens us all.” AQIM and AQAP have also called on the citizens of ten Arab countries that have joined the coalition to prevent their governments from acting against the terrorist group, which has recently achieved lightening territorial advances in Iraq and Syria. AQAP and AQIM have also promised “dark days” to the “alliance of infidelity and evil,” and have urged Syrian rebels to keep up their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, warning them to “beware of being tricked by America…and thus being diverted from your path” and becoming its “pawns.”
Tuesday’s joint statement however marked a significant change in al-Qaeda’s strategy as under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, al-Qaeda disavowed IS. Both the Yemeni-based AQAP, which is seen by Washington as the network’s most dangerous branch, and AQIM have rejected IS’ June declaration of an Islamic caliphate, adding that they remained loyal to al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda also has its own branch, the al-Nursa front, that operates in Syria. While the network’s joint statement called for differences to be set aside in the face of a new growing coalition, the statement did not explicitly offer support for IS. Instead it is likely an attempt by al-Qaeda’s affiliates to maintain relevant in Washington and within IS. Similar statements of solidarity issued by other Islamist militant groups will likely surface as the US continues airstrikes in the region, however such statements do not necessarily mean that global support for IS is growing.
IS Supporter Warns of Attack Against US and Allies
A supporter of IS militants has warned of attacks on the United States and its allies if they continue to carry out military action against the group in Iraq and Syria. The message, which was posted on the Minbar Jihadi Media website, a well-known Islamist militant online forum, is just one of a few responses from supporters of IS to last week’s announcement by Washington indicating that it was preparing to extend airstrikes against the group into Syria.
The message condemned “intervention in the affairs of other peoples,” adding that “it will lead to an equal reaction of the same strength in targeting the American depth and also the nations allied to it and in all aspects.” The posting, by a supporter referred to as “Amir al-Thul,” also stated “I directed a sternly worded warning to each of those nations involved with America, or that are allied with it in their war against the Islamic Caliphate, that their local and international interests will be legitimate targets.”
While the message also called on the public in the US and its allies to oppose government actions against the group, it remains unclear what influence, if any, the author has on the actions of IS.
The United States military on Tuesday confirmed that it carried out air strikes in Somalia, which targeted the leader of al-Shabaab.
On Wednesday, a US security source reported that the death of the leader of al-Shabaab in a US air strike carried out Monday night is a “very strong probability,” however still unconfirmed. According to the source, “there is a very strong probability that he is dead…. This requires verification on the ground, which is not simple.” A senior Somali security official has echoed this comment, stating “we believe that the Shabaab leader is dead, though we don’t have his body. Most probably he is dead.” The source further indicated that he believes that al-Shabaab is currently “talking about a successor” however Somali security officials are “…still assessing the situation.”
On Tuesday, officials at the Pentagon confirmed the operation, which was carried out by US Special Forces using manned and unmanned aircraft, however they noted that it remained unclear whether al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was hit. Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor of southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region confirmed, “the Americans carried out a major air strike targeting a gathering by senior al-Shabaab officials, including their leader….” According to Mr Nur, although al-Shabaab fighters had largely fled the area in the face of the AMISOM offensive that began Friday, the US airstrikes targeted al-Shabaab commanders as they gathered for a meeting “…to discuss the current offensive in the region.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab has disclosed that Godane was in one of two vehicles hit by the US military strikes. While the spokesman confirmed that six of the group’s fighters were killed in the attack, which occurred 240 km (150 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, he did not confirm whether Godane was among those killed. According to Abu Mohammed, the group’s leader had been travelling in the convoy, which was on its way to the costal town of Barawe, however he has refused to confirm whether Godane was among the victims.
On Monday, local citizens reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing black smoke rise from the area of the attack. Others have reported that there was a brief exchange of fire that occurred immediately after the explosions took place. Local residents also reported that shortly after the US strikes, a number of masked Islamic militants arrested dozens of people who they suspected of spying for the US, and searched a number of nearby homes.
Monday’s attack came just hours after a senior US army commander visited Mogadishu, where he held talks with Somali military chiefs. It also comes at a time when African Union (AU) troops and Somali government forces have launched new operations to push al-Shabaab out of the remaining areas they control. Sources have indicated that the troops are now closing in on the coastal city of Barawe, which has been the main stronghold of al-Shabaab since they were driven out of Kismayo in 2012. The US strikes also come just one day after al-Shabaab attacked a detention centre in Mogadishu in an apparent effort to free other militants detained there.
If Godane has been killed, his death will likely deal a significant blow to the militant group. According to Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, Godane has no heir apparent and his death would be a “significant blow” to al-Shabaab’s organization and abilities. Some however believe that Godane’s death could also lead to a complete shift in the group’s ideology, noting that they may abandon its association al-Qaeda and align itself with another terrorist group in a bid to garner more international attention. While last September, al-Shabaab gained international notoriety after its militants attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people, in recent months, the militant group’s activities have largely been overshadowed by those carried out by Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. With the death of Godane, some commanders may look towards putting in place a new leader that will garner momentum and international attention for the militant group. There are also reports of a rift within al-Shabaab over which global terror group to align with. Godane’s death, if confirmed, could lead to further splits within the group.
Godane, 37, was reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban and took over the leadership of al-Shabaab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile attack. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognized Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, however letters released after Osama Bin Laden’s death have indicated that the Islamist leader had a lower regard for al-Shabaab’s capabilities. Godane is one of the US State Department’s most wanted men, with a US $7 million (£4.2 million) reward for his capture.
In recent years, the US has carried out a number of air strikes in Somalia, targeting those areas controlled by the militant group. In January, a missile strike killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabaab while last October, a vehicle carrying senior members of the group was hit in a US attack that killed al-Shabaab’s top explosives expert.
In a new video made public on Sunday, Boko Haram’s leader has claimed to have created an Islamic caliphate in a northeastern Nigerian town that was seized by the militant group earlier this month. While the declaration is in line with the militant group’s desire of carving out an Islamic state in Nigeria, the timing of the announcement was likely prompted by the recent attention garnered by Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
In the new 52-minute video, Abubakar Shekau states “thanks be to Allah who gave victory to our brethren in the town of Gwoza and made it part of the Islamic caliphate,” adding that Gwoza, in Borno state, now has “nothing to do with Nigeria.” Earlier this month, the United Nations humanitarian office (OCHA) confirmed reports that Gwoza was under the control of the rebel group. While Boko Haram is now believed to be in control of other areas near Gwoza, in southern Borno, as well as large swathes of territory in northern Borno state and at least one town in neighboring Yobe state, mapping the precise areas that have fallen under the control of the Islamist militants will be nearly impossible as there are few humanitarian workers on the ground in the northeast, travel to the region remains dangerous and there is poor mobile phone coverage.
Links to IS
Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate in Nigeria has drawn comparisons with a similar declaration that was made by IS in June. While Boko Haram desires to create an Islamic state, it is believed that this premature declaration is a move to remain relevant in the region and in competition with IS.
Recent gains achieved by IS likely inspired Shekau’s statement, as the militant group has garnered international headlines in recent months by seizing parts of Iraq and Syria in a brutal onslaught. While global focus had initially been placed on Boko Haram’s widely condemned kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, in recent months, much of that focus has shifted to the territorial ambitions of IS despite Boko Haram continuing to carry out nearly daily attacks in northeastern Nigeria. Furthermore, in the wake of a video released last week depicting the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley, the United States has described IS as the strongest-ever Islamist threat with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology, a statement that has further taken attention away from the Nigerian-based militant group, which in comparison, is believed to be a modestly-funded uprising that is composed of poor youths with minimal tactical training. Although Boko Haram has carried out a brutal five-year campaign, by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, Shekau is likely attempting to remain relevant and to raise his own profile in the region, rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East.
While Shekau has on previous occasions expressed support for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, and has congratulated IS on its advances in Iraq and Syria, this new video shows no indication from Shekau that he was associating himself with Baghdadi. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the two groups have been working together. Instead, it is likely that the Nigerian militant’s latest video is an attempt at reminding regional governments and the West that Boko Haram is as powerful a threat as IS.
Boko Haram’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate is inline with the militant group’s ideology, as it has long voiced a desire to create a strict Islamic state within mainly Muslim northern Nigeria. The timing of the announcement however is directly influenced by IS’ activities. Boko Haram had previously declared that they should overrun the entire country prior to declaring an Islamic republic, a belief that was reflected in the manner in which they expanded their area of activity. In the wake of a state of emergency in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, coupled with the launch of a military offensive, Boko Haram had slowly moved out of the city centers, and into the rural areas of northeastern Nigeria. They have also successfully carried out attacks in Abuja this year and have crossed over the porous border into Cameroon. However in recent weeks, Boko Haram has taken over a number of towns in Borno state, a move that demonstrates a shift from hit-and-run tactics to an apparent holding strategy. It is likely that after watching IS’ gains in Iraq and Syria, and the impact this has had on the group’s global attention, Boko Haram’s plan of achieving its goal are now taking on a more gradual approach.
What remains evident is that Boko Haram is closely monitoring IS operations, its gains, what impact it has on the global stage and how the militant group may be able to benefit. Boko Haram is likely to continue to mirror IS moves in the coming months, continuing to take over areas of northeastern Nigeria and possibly releasing brutal videos similar to those released by IS.