The Islamic State and Boko Haram Merger

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. A sobering progress report.

    The threat of Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary movement manifesting itself in a violent and militant shape, but the problem lies elsewhere. As such, the solution is not a military one even though it has to include military responses. The problem is rooted in socio-economic failures, complicated by the invasion of Western values (and thus the erosion of traditional Islamic ones) which threaten the fundamentalists who in turn agitate. The problem is compounded by the suffocating grip of the dictatorial regimes of the region (some of whom are fully supported by us), further complicated by decades/centuries of the humiliation of foreign domination/invasion/meddling/colonialism, and further stirred by the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict which in turn introduce and manipulate other factors in order to detract from the real problem (such as the failure to reach a peace deal). On top of all of that, the many manifestations of the Jihadist movements are being utilized by various parties as a weapon against their regional rivals. Hamas (though not a Jihadi movement) was at one point propped up by Israel to bring down Arrafat’s Fatah. What became the Talibans/Al Qaeda were used by the west to defeat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Muslim Brotherhood was at various times helped by the West to splinter the Pan Arabist movements (similarly, but not quite the same, it’s being used by Turkey now). ISIS was started and funded by the Saudis (just like Al Qaeda) and at one point was helped by Assad to defeat the Western goals of toppling him. It is now being used by Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get an edge and perhaps roll back Iran’s expanding momentum which itself happened as the result of the vacuum left by Saddam’s fall in Western hands. The West, on the other hand, realizes the dangers but is impeded by its own self-defeating alliances with SA and Israel. That creates enough of a vacuum for ISIS and other opportunistic, violent fundamentalist groups such as Boko Haram to operate, consolidate and expand, as this article explains. The West, and more specifically the U.S., are absolutely paralyzed by the various forces manipulating them and by conflicting alliances. These alliances which were once created for preserving Western goals have long outlived their usefulness and morphed into horrendous entanglements that are completely opposed to Western interests in the region. That’s what Obama (and to some extent Bush before him) have realized and tried somewhat hard to disentangle but the foreign interests are proving to stubborn to shake off. In short, we have become a reluctant tool to further the goals of Israel, Saudis, Turks and Qataris who have regional ambitions far bigger than their capabilities and so they are working hard to hijack the American military machine to augment their physical abilities. Egypt, Pakistan and some of the lesser players are smaller factors contributing to this but they have too many internal problems.

    In short, these problems keep festering and keep getting worse. The West does not seem to appreciate or be able to react to the gravity of the situation. These problems are deep enough and go far enough without getting checked that can blow up in a world conflict much bigger than anything that has ever been witnessed. The West needs to wake up and act swiftly and wisely, and by that I don’t mean another military exercise in futility. It means admitting its past wrongs, admitting the flaws of its archaic alliances and formulating a huge plan of action that will ultimately peel away the masses from these regressive forces from the dark ages.

  2. Good post, as usual. The U.S. doesn’t seem to get it yet, or at least the branches of the Government don’t. For all the $Billions spent on both intelligence and maintaining the “Super Power Status,” the only tangibles seem to be spending $$$ without any positive return, at least to the taxpayers pocket book. Ignorance of the Muslim world doesn’t appear to have budged since the 1st Gulf War, if not before. As for the money source, this is a smoke screen if there ever was one. Who control;s the worlds money system? There’s your source. It may have those spy in the sky dealers, but money is money, regardless of where it comes from. Consider who would be hurt the most if the money supply collapsed, the really big suppliers? Start with the banks. As for the IS/Boko Haram join up, exactly what was expected? The idiots in charge of the only “Super Power” have created the conditions that has allowed this latest marriage. Whether or not it’s too late, (this keeps popping up in the conversation), is rapidly coming to fruition and remains to be seen. “The clash of the civilizations”, getting closer than anyone thinks.

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