How Boko Haram Became the Islamic State’s West Africa Province

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ICC Note: For the past seven-plus years, Boko Haram has devastated northern Nigeria with a violent and slippery insurgency, primarily targeting Christians and churches, murdering more than 20,000 people and destroying more than 13,000 Christians houses of worship. Throughout their history, they have proven themselves adaptable, resourceful, and chameleon-like, pragmatically shifting tactics and rhetoric to suit the ever-changing expediency involved with resisting coalition military forces and accomplishing a shockingly bloody agenda. All-the-while, Boko Haram has become the world’s deadliest terror threat since 2009, reportedly killing more people in 2014 that the Islamic State (IS). The Islamist West African terror group has since aligned themselves with IS, however the functional value of the allegiance becomes hard to trace. Still, Boko Haram has turned northern Nigeria into one of the most difficult places on earth to live as a Christian in their relentless pursuit of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region.

By J. Peter Pham

5/18/16 Nigeria (The Journal of International Security Affairs) – Even before it burst into the headlines with its brazen April 2014 abduction of nearly three hundred schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, sparking an unprecedented amount of social media communication in the process, the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram had already distinguished itself as one of the fastest evolving of its kind, undergoing several major transformations in just over half a decade. In a very short period of time, the group went from being a small militant band focused on localized concerns and using relatively low levels of violence to a significant terrorist organization with a clearer jihadist ideology to a major insurgency seizing and holding large swathes of territory that was dubbed “the most deadly terrorist group in the world” by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based on the sheer number of deaths it caused in 2014.(1) More recently, Boko Haram underwent another evolution with its early 2015 pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State and its subsequent rebranding as the “Islamic State West Africa Province” (ISWAP).

The ideological, rhetorical, and operational choices made by Boko shifted considerably in each of these iterations, as did its tactics. Indeed the nexus between these three elements—ideology, rhetoric, and operations—is the key to correctly interpreting Boko Haram’s strategic objectives at each stage in its evolution, and to eventually countering its pursuit of these goals.

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