Deadly Cooperation: Boko Haram and Islamic State

Developing on separate continents, the two radical Islamic movements have shown scary similarities over the past year and grown closer in communication. What does this mean for the rest of the world?

Jordan's Queen Rania holds a picture of executed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, in Amman on February 6. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jordan's Queen Rania holds a picture of executed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, in Amman on February 6.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The world has seen the rise of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and an African caliphate in Nigeria. As 2014 progressed, Boko Haram started resembling Islamic State in many areas, and these similarities have since only grown.
Reporters, analysts and governments are starting to speculate that there may be connections between Islamic State and Boko Haram. What are these connections? Are the two groups really that alike? If the movements are collaborating, then Boko Haram is the net beneficiary – and Nigeria could be facing massacres and genocide on an unprecedented scale.
The groups’ histories are significantly different; parallels between them did not start emerging until last year.
In 2014, Islamic State came into being, having rebranded itself several times over the years; that same year, Boko Haram became extremely radicalized and violent. Leader Abubakar Shekau had led the group into extreme violence in 2009, but in 2014, Boko Haram upped the ante and attacks became more frequent and deadly.
It was during this time – 2014 – that the two groups started mirroring each other and collaborating.
In regard to methods used to wage violence, the two groups do have many similarities.
Both attack soft (undefended) targets, and Christians and other religious minorities.
Both kill people who disagree with their views, even if such dissidents are Muslim.
Boko Haram and Islamic State also choose their targets strategically. Both fight to gain territory, obtain supplies (including military equipment) and instill control and fear in the populace; they also select targets based on long-term gain.
For instance, this past January, Boko Haram took over the city of Baga in Borno State; the target was chosen because it housed a multinational military base and was of strategic importance.
Islamic State also selects targets based on strategic gain. Iraqi oil fields were needed to help fund the group’s activities; the Baji oil refinery and the surrounding area were then attacked, seized but later lost back to Iraqi control with the help of US air strikes in December 2014. The fact remains: Islamic State viewed Baji as a strategic resource that could have helped to sustain its growth.
The violent methods employed by both groups are also very similar. They include kidnappings, forced marriages, forced conversions, suicide bombings, beheadings, shootings and executions.
It should be noted that the two movements have a very specific similarity not widely shared with other terrorist groups: In regard to suicide bombers and executioners, the groups utilize all ages and genders. In this way, women and children are not barred from such missions, and are often encouraged to be part of them.
In January alone, Boko Haram used three female suicide bombers believed to be around 10 years of age. At the same time, Islamic State disseminated a video of young boys executing people the movement had deemed infidels. Both groups have used women and children, in addition to men, to conduct other suicide missions and execute people.
There are also a few differences between them. Boko Haram in particular employs arson and firebombing in their attacks, often razing towns and villages to the ground. These tactics are holdovers from the period when the group employed hitand- run, guerrilla-style tactics; because they were not capturing the towns, they would raze them. Yet these methods are still employed, even though Boko Haram has started retaining territory. In Baga, when Boko Haram took over the military base and then the town, it also went to the surrounding 16 villages and torched them.
Despite the few differences, the groups’ results have been quite analogous. The Council on Foreign Relations put deaths by Boko Haram from November 2013 to November 2014 at 10,340; the UN put deaths by Islamic State for the same period at 10,733. Moreover, the territory controlled is very similar as well. Reports estimate that Boko Haram controls about 52,000 square kilometers, while Islamic State controls between 39,000 and 90,000. To illustrate, Boko Haram controls territory the size of Belgium, while Islamic State controls an area between the size of Switzerland and Portugal.
In addition to dominating large swaths of land and mass killing, the groups’ future agendas also dovetail in regard to expansion – as both started in one country and bled into neighboring countries. Islamic State started in Syria, moved to Iraq and has its eye on more countries; Boko Haram started in Nigeria, has moved into Cameroon and Chad, and is also focused on more countries.
Both view the world not in political boundaries, but in Islamic zones.
It is yet to be seen if Boko Haram will follow Islamic State’s desire to become a global movement. Islamic State started as a regional group, but has morphed into a worldwide force. Through media and the Internet, Islamic State is reaching out to encourage lone-wolf attacks and possibly more.
Boko Haram has remained regional.
Shekau has stated the group will undertake global moves; however, for now, it has not completely followed Islamic State’s lead in this endeavor.
Both groups have amassed territory, and have declared it a caliphate; both groups use their flag to show a conquered territory, and both implement Shari’a.
The idea of conquering territory is new to Boko Haram, and came after the successes of Islamic State; Boko Haram started seizing territory only after Islamic State demonstrated the efficacy of the concept in Syria, then Iraq. Moreover, it started using a black background and a flag after Islamic State came on the scene. Lastly, Boko Haram declared its caliphate just a few months after Islamic State did so (Islamic State declared one in June, Boko Haram in August).
Thus, these parallels have come about as emulation by Boko Haram of Islamic State.
Although the groups may be comparative in the way they seize territory, their implementation of Shari’a is different.
Currently, Islamic State is able to assert some sort of governance, while Boko Haram is not.
Islamic State regularly crucifies, amputates and executes criminals. Boko Haram, although violent, does not maintain the same type of order in regard to enacting its form of justice and governance; this is most likely due to its decentralized character.
Islamic State has a more defined, top-down structure, allowing for more consistency in applying Shari’a; Boko Haram is decentralized. Though Shekau is the leader, local cells undertake most attacks without his oversight; this lack of explicit authority in operations also leads to lack of authority in governance.
Therefore, the rules in one city may or may not apply to the rules in another.
With the help of Islamic State, it is possible that Boko Haram could obtain a more top-down structure that would enable it to better control its territory; this would be necessary for Boko Haram to become a global entity. An African caliphate, run with some order, would attract the sympathizers needed to make Boko Haram global.
Today, those outside West Africa are not drawn to Boko Haram’s cause – but a structured African caliphate could change that.
The groups are not closely correlated in this area. Although both have adherents in their own countries and recruit from outside them, the target audiences of their recruitment efforts are entirely different.
Boko Haram kidnaps and forces young boys and men to fight. Additionally, it appeals to many looking for a way to combat the human rights abuses of the Nigerian government forces. Most of those recruited into Boko Haram have some ties or emotions to Nigeria, and its abuses or prior caliphates (which incorporate portions of surrounding countries).
This means they are from Nigeria or surrounding countries – and the recruiting and fighting remain regional.
Islamic State is very divergent in this regard. Although it forces young boys and men to fight, it actively reaches out – through media and the Internet – to Westerners, as it wants to expand beyond its immediate area and into the rest of the world. Fighters from all over the globe can be found warring on behalf of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as in countries around the world.
Both groups are expanding their propaganda; however, it appears Boko Haram is following Islamic State. Both use videos to communicate, including ones that show beheadings, though Boko Haram does so significantly less.
Boko Haram has also added the jihadist black banner to its logo and Islamic State’s musical repertoire to its videos.
Islamic State, with its global reach, produces its own magazine; Boko Haram does not have a global reach yet, and a magazine is not likely needed (it is also unclear if Boko Haram has the necessary funding and expertise to do so).
While the two groups do not have the same funding sources, they have the same funding techniques. Both are endowed by sympathetic Islamic charities, groups and countries.
Furthermore, both involve themselves in criminal activity to fund their operations, including:
• Kidnapping
• Extortion
• Theft
• Black-market oil
• Slave trade (human trafficking)
• Sex trade
As demonstrated, there are quite a few connections between the groups. This begs the question: Are they collaborating? At the beginning of 2014, the answer was a sound no – but that may be changing.
This past September, experts started seeing collaboration between them; analysts say the groups’ leaders “have been sharing military strategy and other information back and forth.” Specifically, Islamic State is offering Boko Haram advice on how to build an African caliphate.
The Nigeria Security Network warned, “Unless swift action is taken, Nigeria could be facing a rapid takeover of a large area of its territory reminiscent of Islamic State’s lightning advances in Iraq.”
Evidence is mounting that the two groups are starting to create a mentor/ student type of relationship. Boko Haram has much to gain; but it must be asked: What is Islamic State getting out of this? Islamic State does not have much to gain by simply mentoring Boko Haram.
Although both are of Salafi theology, the groups’ goals are actually in conflict, as there cannot be two caliphates.
Has Boko Haram submitted to the authority of Islamic State? Is Islamic State looking to co-opt Boko Haram, as it has co-opted Islamist brigades in Syria and Iraq? IN CONCLUSION, although Boko Haram and Islamic State had different starts, came from different parts of the world and, for the majority of their existence, did not resemble one another, the last year has brought them together.
At a bare minimum, Boko Haram is taking its cues from Islamic State, emulating everything it can to capitalize on Islamic State’s success. This mimicry alone has brought Boko Haram into a new era of terror and violence.
For most of 2014, that seemed to be it: Boko Haram mirroring Islamic State.
Yet around September, factors started emerging that indicated the relationship was becoming something more; information was being shared and a mentorship was forming.
The possibility of escalation in Nigeria is thus almost a certainty. As Boko Haram surpassed 2,000 deaths in the first two weeks of 2015, and Islamic State throws its tentacles into Europe and the US, the cooperation – and possible coalition – between the two grows.
The real question is: To respond to the great threat this represents, will the free world’s cooperation – and a coalition – grow as well? 
The writer is chief risk adviser with Sussman Corporate Security, having previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security and the Kentucky State Police’s Intelligence Branch. She holds a master’s in intelligence with a concentration in terrorism and a BS in political science; her focus is on military, intelligence and terrorism issues, as well as persecution of Christians. To connect with the writer via social media and see more of her work, including the new book Nigerian Genocide: Christian Persecution 2014 (set to be released this month), visit