A recent video produced by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) shows hundreds of Boko Haram fighters pledging their allegiance to ISWAP. The video emerged a few weeks after the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, reportedly died. It is unclear if Boko Haram senior officials, or only the group shown, will be allying with ISWAP. Regardless, the recent increase in ISWAP’s power, and their rising number of fighters, is a concern for people in northeastern Nigeria. There are fears that ISWAP is attempting to consolidate power in the region and potentially gain control over the entire insurgency. These concerns are supported by this recent video. One fighter said, “we will unite together to fight” and, “what will happen now will by far exceed what transpired in the past now that we’re united.” The potential consolidation of power with ISWAP could quell the violent rivalry between Boko Haram and ISWAP. If the groups join, the insurgency could focus more attention on attacking the Nigerian military: the main target of both groups.
Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.” The group initially appeared in the late 1990s as a non-violent religious movement that was made up of mostly younger Nigerians in the north and northeastern regions of the country. Originally, the movement emerged in response to colonialism and the attempted Christianization of Nigeria by missionaries during British occupation. The Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna lil-Da’awa wal-Jihad group was officially formed in 2002, recognized by most media as Boko Haram. The first attacks were suppressed by the Nigerian government in 2003. However, their attacks against the government continued, and the group grew throughout the early 2000s. In accordance with their interpretations of Islamic law, Boko Haram targets anything they deem as “haram”, or forbidden. The group’s goal is to purify Islam in Nigeria and eventually overthrow the Nigerian government. Such reasoning prompted Boko Haram to bomb government buildings, kidnap young school girls, and kill people who advocate for what Boko Haram views as the Westernization of Nigerian society. By 2013, the United States and many other countries designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization.
In 2015, Boko Haram and the Islamic State West African Province had joined forces and continued their attacks against the government and whomever they viewed as breaking Islamic law. Boko Haram has also been allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant since 2015. However, Boko Haram split from the ISWAP in 2016 and was led by Abubakar Shekau until his death this year. Boko Haram is now without leadership, and many observers view the video of Boko Haram fighters allying with ISWAP as a potential sign of the group splintering or officially rejoining ISWAP.
The 12-year insurgency, and resulting humanitarian crisis, has led to at least 350,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. Original estimates of 35,000 deaths were based only on those killed in direct conflicts during the insurgency. The inclusion of indirect conflicts, like damages to trade, ruined agriculture industries, food shortages, water infrastructure failures, and issues with healthcare, pushes the death toll ten times higher. The UN estimates nearly 1.1 million people will die by 2030 if the insurgency continues. The threat of ISWAP and Boko Haram is undeniable, and their actions continue to be a serious threat to the region. Currently, it is unclear if the two groups will join together. Nevertheless, it will be crucial for the Nigerian government, and other governments around the world, to protect those most threatened by Boko Haram and ISWAP. This means using more resources in protecting schools for those in isolated locations, preventing the online spread of the groups’ extremist propaganda, and continuing to track and stop the groups’ senior members so as to undermine the unity of these terrorist organizations.