It is too soon to say what impact the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) will have on the ground, apart from enhancing the former’s “brand value”. For now, the threat Boko Haram poses pertains to Africa’s most populous state and its neighbours. It still stretches the imagination to envision a bridging of the geographic distance between its theatre of operations and that of the IS. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise, since Boko Haram had made its intentions clear last year when it declared a caliphate. In fact, the pledge comes against the backdrop of reversals suffered by the group from the militaries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The coming together, however, could be significant for the IS, whose momentum in Iraq and Syria has stalled, compelling the group to look at international expansion. Its efforts to lure Sinai-based Islamists and exploit the conflict in Libya to multiply its ranks there could get a boost from the propaganda value. Unlike terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda — which don’t administer territories — the IS, by its self-definition as a caliphate, needs to control territory to enjoy authority. Expansion is intrinsic to its existence. At the same time, its ideology prevents it from acting strategically by compelling it to fight on all fronts. Its massacre of 21 Egyptian Coptics in Libya last month provoked Egypt to launch air strikes.
African Islamist outfits are divided between local goals and wider alliances. But together, or at odds with each other, they can extend the “arc of instability” in northern Africa. There’s concern about the trans-Saharan smuggling routes supplying Boko Haram with ammunition. Nigeria itself sits on the sectarian faultline between Christianity and Islam in Africa. If Boko Haram’s pledge is more than propaganda, regional governments may soon need international military assistance.