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The Islamic State’s African Long Con
After months of trying to unseat al Qaeda on the African continent, the jihadis from Syria have locked arms with Boko Haram.
In the long run, Boko Haram’s decision to pledge its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) — and the IS’s subsequent acceptance of that pledge — may make little difference to the African militant group. But that will hardly be the case for IS. After spending months making exaggerated claims of just how far its reach extends into Africa, the global jihadi organization now has a potent network on the continent, one that will act as a powerful magnet pulling other regional jihadis toward it.
This oath of allegiance, or bayat, is bad news, of course: it expands the reach and power of the most vicious jihadi organization in the world. But Boko Haram’s pledge does have the indirect benefit of disrupting the carefully concocted strategy of its former patron, al Qaeda, IS’s more cerebral rival, for supremacy over the global jihadi movement. But this silver lining does not eclipse the cloud.
Since at least last November, IS had been overstating its reach into Africa. Prominent outlets like CNN and the Associated Press reported that it had taken control of the northern Libyan city of Derna when it was, in fact, only one of a number of armed players there. The group’s sympathizers in regional jihadi organizations, meanwhile, frequently posted misleading propaganda designed to make support for IS seem deeper than it actually was. Members of Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi, a jihadi group in Tunisia, for instance, released a pro-IS statement in September 2014 that prompted media outlets to inaccurately report that the Tunisian group had pledged allegiance to IS. In other words, IS has run something of a con game in Africa, trumpeting successes that it hadn’t achieved, while greatly exaggerating those that it had.
Now that IS has drawn in Boko Haram, the recent push into Sirte by a Libyan IS-affiliate seems like an extension of that con. Instead of taking and holding the city, the Islamic State’s goal appeared to have been merely to impress Boko Haram through a show of force, seemingly to convince its leaders that they control a robust, formidable African operation. The Sirte offensive, thus, may have been nothing more than the final touch in the Islamic State’s effort to persuade Boko Haram to join its ranks. This time it worked.
The Islamic State’s exaggerations could and should have been exposed as distortions all along. Unfortunately, these distortions have become largely irrelevant now that Boko Haram has pledged itself to the group. If enough people buy into the con that IS has a firm foothold in the African continent, then perception becomes reality.
Aside from IS aiding Boko Haram’s propaganda efforts, the extent of operational coordination between the two groups remains unclear. It is possible that IS has dispatched operatives to sharpen Boko Haram’s military prowess, or that it plans to enhance cooperation between the Nigerian jihadi group and other IS holdings in Africa. The world may only find out once it’s too late.
Conversely, Boko Haram may end up with a case of buyer’s remorse for leaving al Qaeda’s orbit, where it benefited from the skills and capabilities of its regional affiliates like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s al-Shabab. IS also seems to be experiencing financial difficulties in Syria and Iraq, as U.S. airstrikes continue to destroy the group’s capacity to refine oil. This could hamper the Islamic State’s ability to pay whatever price it promised for Boko Haram’s bayat — a financial guarantee it almost certainly made, as IS has offered money to other African jihadi groups to join its network in the past.
But though the pledge may have an impact on Boko Haram, its major strategic significance is in what it does for IS. IS supporters embedded in regional groups like Uqba ibn Nafi — which is active on Tunisia’s border with Algeria — have issued statements designed to puff up the Islamic State’s perceived support by falsely suggesting that they had pledged their loyalty to the group. For instance: A September 2014 statement released by Uqba ibn Nafi’s Kairouan branch that claimed to speak for the whole organization announced that Uqba ibn Nafi would “show support, help and aid for the State of the Islamic Caliphate,” and urged “the ranks of the mujahedin” to unite “in every place.” That statement clearly undermined the wishes of Uqba ibn Nafi’s leaders, who would later describe their organization as residing under al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s umbrella.
A few weeks ago, the people issuing these types of statements in defiance of their leadership were, essentially, nothing more than nuisances, zealous young fanatics who could be eased out of their loyalty to IS over time. Today, though, there is a greater chance that they will defect from their parent groups to create pro-IS splinters. This is because IS finally has an infrastructure in Africa that minimizes the costs of taking this otherwise independent route.
It is not yet clear how the behavior of groups like Uqba ibn Nafi will change as a result — after all, Boko Haram is a very new addition to the Islamic State’s Africa network — but the braggadocio of cocky pretenders within their ranks has suddenly become a real internal threat. Pro-IS splinters from regional jihadi groups, in turn, can strengthen IS, creating a more powerful network that may result in a short-term surge in violence, and a subsequent spike in both brutality and instability.
Still, there might be a bright side, however slight. By making defection to IS-affiliated splinter groups more attractive, Boko Haram’s pledge may disrupt al Qaeda’s more long-term, deliberate approach to growth on the continent. The two organizations have somewhat opposite approaches to making their presences felt. IS wants the world to believe that it is everywhere, and that it is a major player even in areas where it remains marginal. In contrast, al Qaeda wants the world to believe that it is nowhere. Following IS’s split from al Qaeda, both Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi and the Caucasus Emirate, a jihadi group based in Russia, came out as al Qaeda affiliates, a claim that many Western analysts refused to believe up until the moment that the groups themselves said so. And although the available evidence suggests that Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia is an undeclared affiliate of al Qaeda, the group itself has never said so publicly.
These divergent approaches are a product of the organizations’ experiences. IS has grown quickly and suffered few setbacks against the backdrop of a chaotic post-Arab Spring world. So it views announcing itself everywhere, from Algeria to Indonesia, as an opportunity for unchecked growth. By contrast, for a decade and a half al Qaeda has found itself hunted and constrained by counterterrorism mechanisms like the U.S. drone program. Operating under non-al Qaeda brands and quietly expanding its empire is, in al Qaeda’s estimation, a surer route to building a lasting jihadi presence around the world.
IS’s more rash tactics had, previously, done little to disrupt al Qaeda’s more deliberate approach, even after IS drew in the Sinai-based jihadi group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis. But with Boko Haram now joining the IS network, al Qaeda may be forced to deviate from its competitive strategy, perhaps simply by making its presence more open, or by rashly attempting to carry out riskier or poorly conceived attacks in an effort to secure its own networks.
Regardless of this silver lining, Boko Haram’s pledge remains a cloud. Could it really grow more brutal? That seems unlikely. But other jihadi groups taking up the IS banner, and emerging pro-IS splinters, are likely to embrace its trademark viciousness. The Islamic State’s impulsive methods of growth may be destabilizing, particularly if it ends up in competition with al Qaeda. IS will certainly continue devising increasingly creative ways to inflict pain and humiliation upon its victims. And it is that rare jihadi organization that is so brutal that it actually distorts the marketplace for extremism. The fact that an article appearing in Foreign Affairs openly warns that al Qaeda’s defeat could be a bad thing because it would cede ground to the more extreme IS tells you all you need to know.
Osama bin Laden famously wanted to rebrand al Qaeda prior to his death, believing that the rashness and brutality it had become known for — particularly through the actions of the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq — had caused it to lose support in the Muslim world. There is perhaps no better way for al Qaeda to change the perception of its brand by contrasting itself to the Islamic State’s over-the-top violence.
The fact that the Islamic State has now ushered in a world where even Western scholars are starting to view al Qaeda as a relatively moderate group is, to put it mildly, alarming. Nigeria may be just the first proving ground.