Boko Haram, Islamic State and the Archipelago Strategy

Boko Haram, Islamic State and the Archipelago Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 24

By: Jacob Zenn

The Jamestown Foundation


This paper will explain how in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram can be understood as currently operating between the tamkin (authority) and khilafah phases of jihadist methodology, while in northwest Nigeria, it is currently in the phase of destabilizing taghut (tyrants). The paper will then focus on Boko Haram’s expansion from northeast Nigeria into Far North Region, Cameroon by taking advantage of cross-border kinship networks in the same way that the Islamic State organization has done in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban have done in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Following this, the paper will show that while Boko Haram initially received training, ideological guidance and funding from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it has more recently begun to model its ideological and military doctrine after the Islamic State organization and, in turn, has started to receive recognition from Islamic State. Finally, the paper will conclude with an explanation of Islamic State’s ”Archipelago Strategy” and where Boko Haram fits within this structure.

Northeast vs. Northwest Nigeria

Boko Haram’s main area of operations is in northeast Nigeria, particularly Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States, where it controls approximately 20 towns. The largest towns that fell under Boko Haram’s control in 2014 are Bama with 200,000 people and Mubi of 150,000 people (the latter has since been retaken by anti-Boko Haram vigilantes). When Boko Haram captured Mubi, it first occupied key government and religious buildings, appointed a new amir and renamed the city as Madinat al-Islam (City of Islam in Arabic). This is consistent with Boko Haram’s long-stated objective to kill pre-existing amirs in areas under its control and install its own amirs to ensure – in the words of Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, “they will never be part of Nigeria again” (Vanguard [Lagos], November 28). Boko Haram also renamed Gwoza as Dar al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) and installed its own amir in this and other towns. Several days before capturing Malam Fatori on Nigeria’s border with Niger, a Chadian faction of the group issued a video saying they captured anti-Boko Haram vigilantes after they crossed into the “Islamic State” and then showed the beheading of three vigilantes (Daily Trust [Abuja], November 10).

In areas under Boko Haram’s control, the militants are imposing Shari’a punishments such as stoning, whipping, hand-cutting and beheadings and are recruiting hundreds, if not thousands, of teenage boys and girls, while threatening those who do not join “jihad” with death (This Day [Lagos], August 20; National Mirror, July 22). The more than 250 schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in Chibok are likely being used as modern day “comfort women,” whose children will grow up steeped in Boko Haram’s ideology about the caliphate that it has declared and their offspring will become the next generation of radical militants. Boko Haram is also cutting off road and bridge access and placing landmines around Borno’s perimeter to turn it into an “island” that will be the base of its new Islamic State.

In northwest Nigeria, Boko Haram is engaged in a campaign to destabilize the government and existing power structures by carrying out bombings in major cities. The attacks in these northwest areas are sporadic but have a high impact as they have large death tolls and are in major population centers or key targets, such as motor parks, churches and mosques, prisons and police headquarters. The network that has carried out the most significant attacks in northwest Nigeria includes Nigerian members of the North African militant group al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) who began returning to Nigeria in 2011 and formed the Boko Haram faction Ansaru, which was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the UK and later the United States. Its leader was longtime Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC, the predecessor to AQIM) kidnapper, Khalid al-Barnawi. In 2012 and 2013, Ansaru kidnapped and killed 10 foreign engineers in Nigeria and ambushed Mali-bound Nigerian troops. In addition, the 12 female suicide bombings carried out in northwest Nigeria since the Chibok kidnapping in April 2014 represent the combined capabilities of reintegrated remnants of Ansaru’s network into Boko Haram to activate new “sleeper-cells” in northwest Nigeria (Vanguard [Lagos], December 2).

Composition and Leadership

Around 75 percent of Boko Haram’s estimated 15,000 members are ethnic Kanuris, including Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf and current leader Shekau. Kanuris are the descendants of the Kanem-Borno Caliphate (based in Borno State), which lasted from approximately 900 to 1900 A.D. This Caliphate was divided between Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad at the onset of the colonial era in the 1800s. Yusuf lamented “Borno’s amalgamation to the infidels” as well as the shift of religious power to Hausa-Fulani leaders of northwest Nigeria who “mixed Islam with democracy and secularism,” political power to Abuja and economic power to “Christian” southern Nigeria. [1]

Moreover, the three key factors contributing to Boko Haram’s appeal in these regions include:

  • Borno has little economic vitality or job opportunities, in addition to ecological and related agricultural problems caused by the shrinking of Lake Chad
  • The relative depravation of Borno compared to other more wealthy and powerful parts of Nigeria
  • The potency of takfiri ideology, which is used to justify killing Muslim leaders in northwest Nigeria, politicians connected to Abuja and the Christians of Nigeria who increasingly moved to parts of northern Nigeria in the 20th century.

Boko Haram’s operational environment is similar to that of the Islamic State organization and the Taliban. The Islamic State is based in a majority Sunni Arab area of the Syria-Iraq border region, whose inhabitants have seen their land divided into the countries of Iraq and Syria by colonial-era governments. Islamic State recruitment there is also fuelled by dissatisfaction that political power has also shifted to a Shi’a and Iranian-backed government in Baghdad and that Syria retains an Alawite-Shi’a government despite decades of efforts by Sunni Arabs, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to oust the al-Assad family. Likewise, the Taliban is a majority Pashtun movement, which has seen its traditional lands divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan and political power shifted to Pakistan’s Punjabi elites. While the Pashtuns have power in Kabul, they are weak in the Tajik and Uzbek majority areas of northern Afghanistan. A further common factor is that the Islamic State, Taliban and Boko Haram all struggle to expand beyond their ethnic base, while nonetheless seeing a pan-ethnic caliphate as favorable to a nation-state.

International Connections: From al-Qaeda to Islamic State

Boko Haram was considered to be a “domestic” or “peaceful” movement until Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf in 2009 and Shekau declared jihad in 2010. However, some members have been training with AQIM since 2002 while others went to Afghanistan. Yusuf meanwhile made it clear that Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Sayyid Qutb and Ibn Taymiya were the only “pure” Salafists and that a confrontation with the Nigerian state was inevitable. In addition, Bin Laden provided funding to Salafist groups in Nigeria, some of which found its way to Boko Haram, and he maintained contact with Boko Haram via Sahelian militants in his External Operations Unit in Pakistan, which included individuals such as Yunis al-Mauritani. [2]

These Sahelian militants also maintained contact with AQIM leaders, such as Abdelmalek Droukdel and southern commander Abu Zeid, and factional leaders, such Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Ansaru founder Khalid al-Barnawi. This is why an Ansaru member, Abu Ali al-Nigeri, participated in claiming their involvement in the Belmokhtar-led attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January 2013 and Ansaru propaganda materials were found in Belmokhtar’s compound in Gao, Mali after he fled the city in 2013 (, February 7, 2013). AQIM’s fingerprints were also on Ansaru’s (then al-Qaeda in Lands Beyond the Sahel) first kidnapping of a British and Italian engineer in Kebbi in May 2011 (Vanguard [Lagos], August 4, 2011).

AQIM’s kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano on January 26, 2012 – the same day Ansaru announced its formation in that city – also led to the demand for the release from German prison of an Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) website administrator, Filiz Gelowicz. She was connected to Bin Laden’s External Operations Unit via her husband, Fritz Gelowicz, who was a German Taliban member in the “Sauerland Plot” on Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 2007 (Spiegel, August 28, 2009; Punch, April 15, 2012). AQIM also asked for the release of Abu Qatada al-Filistini from prison in that kidnapping, whose writings on kidnappings were found at Abu Zeid’s abandoned compound in Mali in 2013. These demands followed Droukdel’s promise that Bin Laden would negotiate for AQIM hostages (France24, November 19, 2010). [3]

AQIM also supported Boko Haram with financing, training and arms after 2010, which Droukdel promised to the “Nigerian mujahideen” after Yusuf’s death in order for them to attack “Crusaders.” This in turn facilitated the UN Headquarters attacks in Abuja in August 2011, which was masterminded by Yusuf’s third-in-command, Cameroonian Mamman Nur, and resembled AQIM’s attack the same day at Cherchell barracks in Algiers, as well as AQIM’s attack on the UN in Algiers in 2007 and al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) attack on the UN in Baghdad in 2003. AQIM funding also enabled the Christmas Day church bombing in Nigeria’s Niger State in 2011 and church bombings in Kaduna on Easter 2012 (, September 9, 2011). AQI was also the only al-Qaeda affiliate other than AQIM to send condolences to the “Nigerian mujahideen” after Yusuf’s death in 2009.

AQIM’s rejection of Shekau for the killing of Muslims and the reputation problems that this created for al-Qaeda led AQIM to support the founding of Ansaru’s first cells in Kaduna and Kano. Ansaru also recruited northwest Nigerian ethnic Hausas and other Salafists, who rejected the northeast Kanuri leaders, such as Yusuf and Shekau, whose takfiri ideology justified the killing of anyone opposed to Boko Haram. However, Ansaru has likely reintegrated with Boko Haram in Borno and northern Cameroon due to the French military intervention in northern Mali in 2013, which cut Ansaru’s links to AQIM and its “cousin” militant group, MUJAO; this has effectively left Ansaru on “life support.” This reintegration explains why Boko Haram has kidnapped 21 foreigners in northern Cameroon since February 2013 (France24, November 15, 2013). However, unlike Ansaru, which killed its captives, Boko Haram has ransomed these captives for millions of dollars and the release of weapons traffickers from Cameroonian prisons. Boko Haram’s cross-border Kanuri kinship ties have also facilitated its expansion into Far North Region, Cameroon, where it recruits, kidnaps hostages for ransom and launches attacks into Nigeria. Boko Haram also kidnapped one German development worker in Adamawa, who remains in captivity (Deutsche Welle, November 1). Notably, like the Islamic State, Boko Haram has taken the national ID cards of Cameroonian citizens and burned them in public gatherings.

Despite its previous position as part of al-Qaeda’s global movement, Boko Haram now appears to have shifted almost completely into the Islamic State’s orbit since Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a caliphate in July, as underlined, and one month later, when Boko Haram leader Shekau announced his support for al-Baghdadi (Vanguard [Lagos], July 13). On November 1, Boko Haram also released a video statement featuring Shekau along with 14 militants and 4 armed SUVs in the background (Leadership [Abuja], November 10). [4] The video showed an ideological shift to Islamic State:


  1. The opening showed, for the first time, the Islamic State-styled rayat al-uqab (banner of the eagle, more commonly referred to as the black standard or banner) flag as part of the Boko Haram logo.
  2. A new media agency, Ghuraba (strangers), possibly named after a media wing in Syria that has published martyrdom statements of Chechens, claimed to be responsible for the video’s production. This agency is likely the reason why the video is of higher quality than previous videos. Only the Boko Haram video released prior to this one, in which Shekau said that Boko Haram had created an Islamic state with the Islamic State organization’s signature nasheed (Islamic chant) “My Umma Dawn Has Arrived” playing in the background, is of the same quality. Boko Haram may be using new funding to upgrade the quality of its media output.
  3. The end of the video showed archive clips of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf with Arabic subtitles saying the purpose of combat is to create an Islamic State. Yusuf has rarely, if ever, been featured in Boko Haram videos since his death in 2009.


In addition, on November 10, Boko Haram released a 44-minute video via its usual intermediaries at AFP. [5] Key points from this video are the following:

  1. Shekau appeared in a mosque with militants and delivered a sermon. This is the first time Shekau has appeared in a mosque setting since Boko Haram went underground in 2009 and launched their insurgency. Shekau’s “stage” is similar in symbolism and style to al-Baghdadi’s video sermon in a mosque in Mosul in July where he declared the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
  2. In the video, Shekau also wore an imam’s attire for the first time since 2009. Given the close-up shots of Shekau in the video, this may also be the real Shekau (as opposed to reported imposters) because the producers were not attempting to obscure his image. One of the purposes of this video may be to mirror the way Islamic State felt compelled to dispel rumors about al-Baghdadi’s existence in the video at the mosque in Mosul, so this video showed several close-up shots of Shekau’s face to prove he is alive. Al-Baghdadi’s video, like Shekau’s, also heralded his return to the role of an imam after years of fighting as a jihadist leader.
  3. In the video, Shekau declared that Boko Haram established an “Islamic caliphate” and conveys greetings to “brethren” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Shishan (Chechnya), Yemen, Somalia and “the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.” Notably, Shekau did not include specific reference to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri or other al-Qaeda affiliates, as he did in prior videos and statements.
  4. The video switched to a scene of al-Baghdadi announcing his caliphate in Mosul, which further underscores Shekau’s attempt to mimic the leader of Islamic State. No evidence exists, however, that Shekau is trying to rival al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, presumably because, according to some religious interpretations, there should only be one caliphate. Rather, Shekau seems to be both complimenting and complementing al-Baghdadi’s self-described caliphate in an effort to increase his image.
  5. The video, like Boko Haram’s October 31 video, was of high quality and another new media agency – generically called “media office” – claimed credit for the video’s production. Presumably, Boko Haram received new funding or used its own funding to upgrade the quality and frequency of its video production.
  6. The video showed a Boko Haram military parade with militants doing “wheelies” with tanks (like the one the Islamic State has shown of its militants doing antics), locals (maybe pressured) cheering when Boko Haram enters their towns and scenes of life in Boko Haram’s caliphate. These scenes are similar to how the Islamic State organization shows documentaries of life under Shari’a law in its caliphate.

The key takeaway from these videos and Boko Haram’s shift to seizing and holding territory like the Islamic State is that Boko Haram is showing its ideological and military strategic contiguity with al-Baghdadi’s organization. This continues a trend of new groups from Jund al-Khilafah (an AQIM faction) to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis of Egypt to Mujahideen Indonesia Timor to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines to Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and other “dissidents” from al-Qaeda affiliates showing support for the Islamic State. These supporters of IS are not necessarily taking orders from the Islamic State, but they may justify their own attacks and operations on the grounds that the Islamic State organization is doing the same, or vice-versa. For example, the suicide bombing Boko Haram carried out at a Shi’a Ashura procession in Yobe on November 3, attempted to bring Islamic State-styled sectarianism to Nigeria and it also used the idea of “Sunni Islam” (or, rather, anti-Shi’ism) to attract recruits (, November 3). At the same time, in its online magazine Dabiq 4, the Islamic State justified its kidnappings and sexual enslavement of non-Muslim Yazidi women in Iraq by citing Boko Haram’s kidnappings of schoolgirls in Chibok and other parts of Nigeria, who are mostly Christian. [6] And in Dabiq 5, the Islamic State recognized the pledges of loyalty to it from Boko Haram, Abu Sayyaf and Mujahideen Indonesia Timor. [7]

There are several reasons why Boko Haram and other jihadist groups are increasingly showing support for the Islamic State organization:

  1. The Islamic State is reportedly offering money to jihadist groups who show affiliation with IS and this in turn enhances the legitimacy of Islamic State. For example, the well-connected Nigerian journalist, Ahmed Salkida, has said that Islamic State would encourage jihadists who could not travel to Syria to travel to Nigeria or Libya and noted that Islamic State is in fact now assessing whether to provide financial support to Boko Haram. [8]
  2. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has seemingly neglected jihadist groups from peripheral areas of the Muslim world, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, whereas his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, financed these groups as “start-up” jihadist groups, including Jemaah Islamiyah (now evolved into Mujahideen Indonesia Timor), Abu Sayyaf and even Boko Haram.
  3. Takfiri groups like Islamic State, Boko Haram and Jund al-Khilafah care less about their public image than al-Qaeda, which now wants to show a humane side. This is similar to how the AQIM-supported faction Ansaru broke from Boko Haram in 2012 on account of its “inhumane” attacks on the “Muslim ummah.” Shekau has also long praised al-Baghdadi’s hardline takfiri predecessors, AQI’s al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Sahara Reporters, January 31, 2012.
  4. The Islamic State’s battlefield successes – or propaganda portraying its successes – has encouraged other groups to “Join the Ranks”, in the words of the title of a recent Islamic State video showing foreign fighters.

In conclusion, Boko Haram has increased its military strength every year since its insurgency started in 2009 and has repeatedly shown its ability to evolve its ideology to follow the leading jihadist trends of the times and to build wider international networks. In 2015, Boko Haram can be expected to continue this trajectory further. The upcoming Nigerian presidential elections in February 2015, combined with the revival of the Niger Delta militancy in southern Nigeria and the growing concern and possible military action of international forces in Nigeria are key themes to watch over the course of the next year. Moreover, if Boko Haram continues to expand into Francophone countries like Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the question remains whether France will be compelled to mobilize an intervention in these countries as it did in Mali in 2013.

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation

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  1. Please see
  2. For example, please see
  3. Zeid document was given to the author privately by a journalist.
  4. Please see
  5. Please see
  6. “The Failed Crusade,” Dabiq 4, September 2014.
  7. “Remaining and Expanding,” Dabiq 5, November 2014.
  8. Please see



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