by Emile Nakhleh
As the world focuses on the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in the Levant, it seems to be expanding its influence and reach into the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa and the Sahel. The recent merger with Boko Haram in Nigeria is a troubling development, which the West and the rest of the international community should take very seriously.
It also portends long-term instability in Africa and a gathering threat for regional states and communities on that continent and beyond. Although the Levant currently is at the forefront of regional and Western policies, the world can no longer afford to keep Africa at arms length as a “forgotten continent.”
The IS-Boko Haram merger was predictable because of the latter’s desire to seek wider Islamic legitimacy and the former’s determination to seek adherents to its Caliphate across the Islamic world. The new relationship promises to last as long as the Islamic State remains uncontained.
Lessons from the Merger
The merger offers several important lessons that Western leaders must understand as they seek to address radical and terrorist Islamic groups.
- The merger reflects a concerted effort by the Islamic State to expand its influence and presence across the Muslim world. This expansion is especially significant when it occurs in areas under control of radical Islamic groups, such as northeastern Nigeria and other parts of the African Sahel, Yemen, Libya, the Horn of Africa, and the tribal region on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
- Unlike al-Qaeda, IS has succeeded in acquiring territory and establishing its so-called Caliphate. As other radical groups control more territory, the Islamic State would seek to expand into those territories.
- IS and Boko Haram view the merger as enhancing their mutual interests, prestige, and legitimacy. IS can argue that it’s no longer only an Arab or Levantine movement but a global one. Boko Haram can tell its adherents and potential recruits that it’s no longer only a West African group situated on a part of Nigeria but a credible part of the larger Islamic umma, as defined by the new Caliphate.
- As IS has eliminated one of the colonial boundaries between Iraq and Syria, its merger with Boko Haram would encourage the African group to discard the established, colonially drawn boundaries between Nigeria and its immediate neighbors—Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. If it succeeds in doing that, it would be able to connect with North African countries beyond the Sahara, especially Libya and Algeria. By erasing these perceived illegitimate boundaries, IS and Boko Haram could convincingly claim that these African territories are now “provinces” of the Islamic Caliphate with allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- The IS-Boko Haram merger and the growing regional declarations of allegiance to the Baghdadi Caliphate signal that regional terrorist and radical Islamic movements are on the ascendancy while al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are becoming more marginalized. Zawahiri is possibly harboring jealousy toward Baghdadi. As al-Qaeda’s jihadist trajectory devolves from global to local, and as the IS’s trajectory evolves from local to global, Zawahiri might conclude that the time is propitious for him to join forces with the Baghdadi Caliphate. The region and the West are ill prepared to grapple with this contingency.
- For Muslim radicals and millenarians, success breeds success. IS has succeeded in spreading across the heartland of Islam, whereas al-Qaeda Central has been relegated to South Asia. Actual and aspiring jihadists view their jihad in the Levant, and more increasingly in Africa, as a legitimate religious duty under the banner of the Caliphate. They believe they are drawn to Syria and Iraq because of the on-going battle between “true” Islam and the “near” and “far” “infidels.” With U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, jihadists view the South Asia conflict as yesterday’s war and therefore not terribly satisfying.
The Merger and Middle East Politics
The IS-Boko Haram merger will endure as long as IS remains a major player in the region. If the Islamic State were defeated, the connection with Boko Haram would prove an historical deadend without lasting effect. If, on the other hand, IS survives the coalition attacks and the Iraqi-Iranian offensive and emerges with a wider territory and a more impressive military power, the connection with Boko Haram would lead to more mergers and more declarations of allegiance to the Baghdadi Caliphate.
Competition between regional jihadist groups and the global al-Qaeda could pose a more serious threat to Western countries and their regional allies. Such a development, however, could provide Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states in the Levant with an opportunity to counter Iran’s ascendant influence in several Arab countries.
The Saudi Kingdom feels threatened by Iran’s rapid expansion on its two important borders—Iraq in the north and Yemen in the south—and therefore would be willing to forge partnerships with all kinds of state and non-state actors to combat this threat. Since IS and its “provinces” across the Middle East and Africa are grounded in an Islamic theology akin to the Saudi religious doctrine, it might be practical for the Saudis to mobilize this Sunni Salafi front against the perceived Persian menace. Such a stunning development could pose a serious threat to Western interests and personnel in the region.
Saudi and other Sunni states would feel more pressure from many of their disgruntled citizens to make common cause with the Sunni Islamic State. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting IS, the Saudi leadership must be worried about Iran’s deepening military involvement in combating IS in the Levant. Senior Iranian military advisers and active combatants no longer hide their participation with the Iraqi forces and the Shia militias and with the Assad regime.
Yet, Saudi Arabia remains concerned about the fate of the Sunni Iraqi population, especially in light of the recently reported atrocities by Shia militias against Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar Province. The Saudis are also apprehensive about Iran’s support of the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.
A possible P5 +1 agreement with Iran over the nuclear issue could pose another major dilemma for Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement could provide Iran with a historic opportunity to become an influential regional power and an acceptable member of the international community. Iran’s resurgence as a result of the agreement and the lifting of sanctions would occur at a time of unprecedented diplomatic and military clout in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
If IS survives these developments, Muhammad Bin Nayef and other younger Saudi leaders under King Salman should perhaps explore the possibility of a new security partnership with Iran. Some observers might consider this suggestion far-fetched, but it is not unprecedented. Iran and Saudi Arabia forged such a security partnership in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s as guarantors of the Gulf “security belt.”
Such a bold move would be doable if IS weakens significantly. Because of the aforementioned domestic pressure to find common cause with IS, the Saudi leadership would be unable to justify a partnership with a Shia state in the battle against a Sunni Caliphate.
What’s Needed to Defeat IS
Although focusing on defeating IS in the Levant, the coalition must not ignore the growing threat of Boko Haram in Africa. In fact, Boko Haram could prove more difficult to defeat than IS in the Levant. A sustained international commitment to fight the Islamic State so far has not extended to Africa.
In order to weaken Boko Haram and strip it of any Islamic legitimacy, Western and regional governments must exert new efforts to track the sources of funding for Nigerian terrorists and the key religious and political supporters within the Muslim community in northern Nigeria. The Nigerian government and security services must empower Muslim leaders and civil society institutions in the north, through job creation and entrepreneurial initiatives, to speak out against the narrow-minded and intolerant religious interpretations that Boko Haram leaders have been preaching. Simultaneously, regional states should engage in a concerted military effort to stop Boko Haram’s expansion beyond the areas under its control in northern Nigeria.
An analysis of recent events, unfortunately, offers a bleak picture of the possibility of success. For example, Western coalition partners can’t even come to agreement on how to deal with the Assad regime. Consensus might be even more difficult to reach in tackling Boko Haram.
Meanwhile, the repression in several Arab countries—including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and others—that has driven many Arab youth to join IS goes unheeded. Yet, the West continues to maintain business as usual with these countries and has not shown the courage or inclination to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the extremist, intolerant religious ideology on which terrorist groups feed.
IS must be severely degraded and contained to end current and future mergers with regional terrorist groups and declarations of allegiance to the Baghdadi Caliphate. Defeating IS requires three concerted sets of policies in tandem. There must be well-coordinated plans for military operations in Syria and Iraq. The United States and others must forcefully oppose repression, corruption, and poor governance in the region. And all parties, including Saudi Arabia, must courageously work to dry up the swamp of intolerant religious ideology.