On Thursday 12 March, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani appeared in a 30-minute audio recording to welcome Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIL, and celebrate the ‘expansion of the caliphate to West Africa’. This endorsement of Boko Haram by ISIL is far more meaningful than some analysts are suggesting: it’s not simply a piece of propaganda; it’s a reflection of the state and nature of the growing jihadist threat. Governments and corporations must pay attention to the real-world implications of the growing ISIL brand and franchise.
ISIL’s acceptance of Boko Haram’s affiliation is significant in 3 ways:
1. It’s an endorsement by ISIL of Boko Haram rather than just a pledge of allegiance by Boko Haram to ISIL. In the history of al-Qaida in the 21st century, endorsements of groups by al-Qaida were far rarer than pledges of allegiance by groups to al-Qaida, because of brand-protection issues;
2. It indicates the standards of behaviour that ISIL associates with its name and wants to promote under its banner, which has real-world implications;
3. It raises questions over ISIL’s use of a brand and franchise model to advance its particular agenda and what that means for the evolution of the global jihadist threat more generally.
Endorsement vs affiliation
Over the past decade and more, several groups (and sometimes simply individuals) have declared themselves part of the official al-Qaida network. AQ branches have emerged in many parts of the world, including Egypt, Indonesia, northern Iran/Iraq, Somalia and, even, the UK (‘AQUK’ declared itself as the official AQ branch in the United Kingdom in the mid-2000s, but we haven’t heard much from them since).
Whilst some had connections with AQ, most did not. None received recognition as official AQ affiliates by Usama bin Laden (UBL), despite encouraging words contained in AQ propaganda about striking Zionists, Crusaders, apostates and the far enemy as part of al-Qaida’s wider global jihadist movement.
Groups that did receive official blessing from AQ were few and far between. Al Qaida in Iraq was the first to come on board, followed by the first iteration of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (which was wrapped up in 2006 by the Saudis and then reborn in 2008 as AQ in Yemen and, once again, as AQAP in 2009). Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb became an AQ affiliate in 2006. One of the groups that UBL refused to endorse, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, finally received the recognition it craved when UBL’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, welcomed al-Shabaab’s entry into the AQ fold – but the jury is still out on the extent to which al-Shabaab’s status as an official AQ franchise is meaningful.
Why was AQ, and UBL especially, so cautious about endorsing like-minded global jihadist groups? Two main reasons:
1. Control: AQ needed to know that groups officially operating under AQ’s banner would act in a way that promoted the AQ brand and take instruction from the top. AQ’s bad experience with al-Qaida in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, under the brutal and wayward leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, made UBL much more cautious about endorsing regional ‘AQ’ franchises that had the potential to undermine the AQ brand. AQ’s relationship with AQI – now ISIL – remains extremely poor to this day;
2. Competence: Even if a group could be trusted to take instruction, there was a question over whether it was capable of achieving the standards of behaviour expected by UBL. The ‘spectacular’ attack of 9/11 set a high bar for aspiring AQ affiliates, and the AQ leadership was keen to continue AQ’s association with large-scale attacks against Western targets. Demonstrably, not many groups convinced UBL that they had what it took to meet these standards and fly the AQ flag.
Therefore, ISIL’s endorsement of Boko Haram is meaningful. Whilst ISIL is not AQ, it is reasonable to assume that ISIL is comfortable with the type of behaviour carried out by Boko Haram and the group’s capability to act in a way that promotes the ISIL brand. This, in itself, is worrying.
What does ISIL stand for?
There have been a few articles of late exploring ‘what ISIL (or ISIS, IS) wants’. One way of trying to get to grips with what ISIL wants, and what they stand for, is by examining the way in which they’re seeking to promote their brand through franchises that operate beyond the Iraq and Syria battlefield. It shows their standards of behaviour and the type of organisations they’re willing to associate themselves with.
In al-Qaida’s case, the DNA of their brand was ‘global jihad’. UBL wanted al-Qaida to mean ‘global jihad’, to the extent that there was no separation for audiences between what al-Qaida was called and what they did. In many ways, it’s comparable to Xerox and ‘photocopying’ or Hoover and ‘vacuum cleaning’: the company name is synonymous with the activity. UBL’s mission was to equate ‘al-Qaida’ with ‘global jihad’. Hence al-Qaida’s caution over creating regional franchises: for the al-Qaida brand to flourish, UBL needed to be sure that franchises were capable of promoting the al-Qaida brand by conducting global jihad in line with their standards and objectives.
What, then, is ISIL’s brand DNA? It’s certainly different from al-Qaida’s judging by the historical relationship between AQ Core and AQ in Iraq, which later remodelled itself as ISIL. Whilst UBL encouraged targeted and Western-focused attacks, as well as efforts to win the hearts and minds of local Muslim populations to secure regional power-bases, AQI under al-Zarqawi pursued a bloodthirsty and sectarian campaign of indiscriminate violence that involved the targeting of Shia Muslims. This brutality – even by AQ’s standards – of ISIL has featured in the group’s recent campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate and is on display in Syria and Iraq today.
These standards of behaviour don’t sit well with al-Qaida: indeed, one of the benefits for the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) of becoming ‘al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’ in 2006 was the ability to dissociate itself from the indiscriminate and extreme violence of the Algerian civil war. ISIL, on the other hand, appear to have no such problems with the association with ultra-violence; in fact, as the horrific propaganda videos indicate, they appear to relish it. So, it seems, does Boko Haram.
Boko Haram’s objectives and standards of behaviour in Nigeria are a good match for those of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Both groups have declared Islamic caliphates and both groups engage in acts of brutality and indiscriminate violence. Like ISIL, Boko Haram has its fair share of dissenters who still consider themselves global jihadists: in 2012, a global jihadist group called Ansaru split from Boko Haram after describing Boko Haram’s actions as ‘inhuman’.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but one conclusion is clear: ISIL and Boko Haram share a brand DNA that is associated with brutality, indiscriminate violence and sectarianism in pursuit of the establishment of ‘caliphates’ under their vicious control. The question remains: has ISIL managed to sever the link that al-Qaida was so keen to create and preserve between AQ and ‘global jihad’? It’s concerning that for many, it seems, ‘ISIL’ means ‘global jihad’ in light of their soaring profile and al-Qaida’s diminishing influence, and this has real-world implications for security and stability.
ISIL brand and franchise: next generation global jihad?
The pressing question for governments and corporations operating in places exposed to global jihadist threats is this: what can we expect in the months and years to come from groups and individuals with global jihadist agendas?
We’ve asked this question many times before of course, when AQ was at the helm. But given the very different standards of behaviour and objectives associated with ISIL, Boko Haram and the thousands of foreign fighters inspired by and signing up to the ISIL brand, what can we expect from a new generation of extremists who are defining global jihad in more brutal and indiscriminate terms? Beyond rising terrorism risks, violent and sectarian campaigns to create caliphates have the power to rip communities apart and cause severe levels of in-country and regional instability.
I’ve written in the past about high threat/high vulnerability risks and the need to prioritise resilience. If ISIL’s endorsement of Boko Haram signals a conscious effort on their part to develop a brand and franchise model to promote their brand of global jihadism outside of Syria and Iraq, then the prognosis for the immediate and near future is bleak. The Nigerian military is not in a position to counter the expansion of Boko Haram, and ISIL – despite operations against them – will be hard to defeat without a military intervention. The burgeoning jihadist front in Libya, which serves as a useful connection between West Africa and the Middle East, will play an instrumental role in the growth of terrorism risks in the months and years to come.
If history tells us anything, ISIL’s brand will, over time, weaken and its ability to control franchises will erode. But there’s no sign of that happening any time soon.
By Chris Mackmurdo Founding Director of Contest Global www.contestglobal.com