Fears over IS-Boko Haram allegiance
Islamic State militants have accepted a pledge of allegiance by the Nigerian-grown Boko Haram extremist group, a spokesman for the Islamic State movement has said.
The development comes as both terror groups, which are among the most ruthless in the world, are under increasing military pressure and have suffered setbacks on the battlefield.
Islamic State (IS) seized much of northern and western Iraq last summer, gaining control of about a third of both Iraq and Syria. But it is now struggling against Iraqi forces seeking to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, while coming under fire from US-led coalition air strikes in other parts of the country and in Syria.
Boko Haram, meanwhile, has been weakened by a multinational force that has dislodged it from a score of north-eastern Nigerian towns. But its new Twitter account, increasingly slick and more frequent video messages, and a new media arm were all considered signs that the group is now being helped by IS propagandists.
On Saturday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau posted an audio recording online which pledged allegiance to IS. Yesterday, IS's media arm, Al-Furqan, in an audio recording by spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance has been accepted, claiming the caliphate has now expanded to West Africa.
Al-Adnani had urged foreign fighters from around the world to migrate and join Boko Haram.
"We announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims ... and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease, and to endure being discriminated against, and not to dispute about rule with those in power, except in case of evident infidelity regarding that which there is a proof from Allah," said the message.
J Peter Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, noted the Islamic State group's quick acceptance of Boko Haram's allegiance and said the bond highlights a new risk.
"Militants finding it increasingly harder to get to Syria and Iraq may choose instead to go to north-eastern Nigeria and internationalise that conflict," he said.
In the past - as was the case with IS affiliates in Egypt, Yemen and Libya - it took weeks for the Islamic State to respond to a pledge of allegiance.
"The prompt - one might even say 'fast-tracked' - acceptance by the so-called Islamic State of Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance" underscores that both needed the propaganda boost from the affiliation, Mr Pham added.
Boko Haram's pledge comes as the militants were reported to be massing in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Gwoza, considered their headquarters, for a showdown with the Chadian-led multinational force.
Boko Haram killed an estimated 10,000 people last year, and has been blamed for last April's abduction of more than 275 schoolgirls. Thousands of Nigerians have fled to neighbouring Chad.
The group is waging a nearly six-year insurgency to impose Islamic or Sharia law in Nigeria. It began launching attacks across the border into Cameroon last year, and this year its fighters struck in Niger and Chad in retaliation to their agreement to form a multinational force to fight the militants.
Boko Haram followed the lead of IS in August by declaring an Islamic caliphate in north-east Nigeria which grew to cover an area the size of Belgium. After their blitz last year, IS extremists declared a caliphate in the vast swathes of territory they control in Iraq and Syria and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The Nigerian group has also followed IS in publishing videos of beheadings. The latest one, published on March 2, borrowed certain elements from IS productions, such as the sound of a beating heart and heavy breathing immediately before the execution, according to Site Intelligence Group.
In video messages last year, Boko Haram's leader sent greetings and praise to both IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and leaders of al Qaida. IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is in itself an al Qaida breakaway which was rejected by the global terror network after the two had a brutal falling out more than a year ago.
Boko Haram, however, has never been an affiliate of a Qaida, some analysts surmise because al Qaida considers the Nigerians' indiscriminate slaughter of Muslim civilians as un-Islamic.
Recent offensives have marked a sharp escalation by African nations against Boko Haram. An African Union summit agreed on sending a force of 8,750 troops to fight Boko Haram.
Military operations in Niger's east have killed at least 500 Boko Haram fighters since February 8, Nigerien officials have said.
Members of the UN Security Council proposed yesterday that the international community supply money, equipment, troops and intelligence to a five-nation African force fighting Boko Haram.