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Boko Haram, Islamic State, and the underlying concerns for West Africa 0

Last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. What’s come of it?

When Boko Haram released a recording in March 2015 in which its leader pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, many analysts believed the announcement would primarily have value as propaganda.

After all, the feasibility of close operational ties between two of the world’s most notorious Islamist militant groups – one based in Syria and Iraq, the other thousands of miles away in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region – is limited. However, a year later, there is evidence of some effects from the nominal alliance.

Most notably, there have been some reported concrete operational links to date, while the pledge also seems to have added a layer of legitimacy to Boko Haram’s goals. Consequently, there have been a small but growing number of individuals making their way from across West Africa to join the group as well as reports of Boko Haram fighters joining the fight in Libya.

While still marginal, these dynamics might indicate the more subtle effects of last year’s pledge and could provide a potentially lasting source of concern throughout the region if not addressed.

What evidence is there that Boko Haram is expanding its membership?

In November 2015, Senegalese national Makhtar Diokhané was arrested in Niger. He was reportedly on his way to secure the release of four Senegalese men who were being held in prison there. These detainees had been caught with counterfeit money, but were reportedly on their way back to Senegal after fighting with Boko Haram.

Diokhané’s capture led to further arrests in Senegal, including Diokhané’s wife, imams that had been preaching extremist ideology, and relatives of other Senegalese nationals fighting with Boko Haram.

This episode shed light on what seemed to be a previously unknown pipeline of Senegalese militants to Nigeria. This news – added to other reports of Senegalese nationals joining the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya – shattered assumptions about the country’s imperviousness to the influence of Islamist militancy.

In addition, the alarming admission by Diokhané and the four detainees that they were planning on setting up a Boko Haram cell in Senegal, and may have even had the supportof the group’s leadership, suggested an expansionist desire by Boko Haram beyond the confines of its historical areas of operation.

Elsewhere, in January 2016, Malian authorities detained four West African nationals (two from Guinea Bissau, and one each from The Gambia and Guinea) who were reportedly passing through the country on their way to join Boko Haram.

Then, in February 2016, eight more Senegalese were arrested in Mauritania also allegedly planning to join the group. Those eight claimed that at least 23 Senegalese had become Boko Haram members since 2015, while one of the previously arrested suspects in Niger indicated that Boko Haram membership includes the presence of some Mauritanians as well.

Do these incidents add up to a new dynamic?

Non-Nigerian membership within Boko Haram is not necessarily a new phenomenon. While principally a Nigerian movement during the days of founder Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed in 2009, adherents originating from Nigeria’s neighbours were not uncommon even then.

However, more recently, as Boko Haram has experienced losses in both personnel and popularity at home and expanded operations into the Lake Chad Basin, the group has compensated by actively recruiting more heavily in southern Niger, northern Cameroon, and Chad.

There has also been a steady stream of allegations in recent years – though little concrete evidence – that the group employs nationals from countries not contiguous to Nigeria. For example, Seini Boukar Lamine, a Cameroonian traditional leader who spent three months as a hostage of the sect in 2014, stated that he saw many “fair-skinned combatants” possibly from “Sudan, Algeria, and other Arab countries” during his time in captivity.

In this sense, the inclusion of fighters from beyond Nigeria and perhaps even beyond the Lake Chad Basin is not necessarily new, though it may be reaching new levels in West Africa. So far, the cases seem to be isolated incidents, but there is the possibility these few known examples form part of a larger pattern or that they could inspire similar journeys in the future.

Continue reading on African Arguments

by Omar S.Mahmood

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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