Abubakar Shekau, Leader of Boko Haram, Wikimedia Commons
By Josh Forgét, Columnist
Boko Haram (or Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad) is in the midst of a media transition. Inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram is refashioning its propaganda to target a more global audience through the use of social media. US policy makers should be conscious of three potential consequences of unchecked Boko Haram propaganda on social media that are relevant to national security policy: 1) the emergence of a terrorist safe haven in territory controlled by Boko Haram, 2) an operational partnership between Boko Haram and ISIL, and 3) American foreign fighters joining Boko Haram. The United States should wage an information campaign that extinguishes Boko Haram’s social media presence in its infantile stages. US policymakers must direct African governments in the region to provide a corresponding counter narrative.
Significance for US Policymakers
Boko Haram has gained a significant territorial foothold in northeastern Nigeria that could become a safe haven for international terrorists. The group is also making forays into adjacent states. “Boko Haram operations are predominantly focused on Borno State and, increasingly, neighboring parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger,” says Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram from the Jamestown Foundation, “The geographic and cultural distance of this region from Abuja as well as the growing influence of the Islamic State on Boko Haram could lead to what had originally been a ‘Nigerian-based’ insurgency developing less nationally-focused aims.” Boko Haram’s organizational links with al-Qaeda affiliates and its burgeoning network of ISIL members support the prediction that Boko Haram’s territory could become the site of international terrorist activity in the future.
Operational collaboration between Boko Haram and ISIL is possible. Abubekar Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to ISIL on March 7 and ISIL’s purported response of acceptance rhetorically formalizes this partnership. Boko Haram’s recent films distributed on social media reinforce this affiliation.
Known ISIL members are some of the first to post Boko Haram propaganda materials online after they are published. Zenn contends that Boko Haram’s link with Afriqiyah Media, a recognized outlet for extremist propaganda, may indicate that Boko Haram has established connections with ISIL through North African jihadists. Others speculate that ISIL has provided training and funding for Boko Haram’s latest video productions, which feature high-definition cameras and advanced graphic effects that mimic ISIL films.
Boko Haram is not a formal subsidiary of ISIL, regardless of what Boko Haram’s social media presence is attempting to convey. Rather, Boko Haram’s shift in media strategy reflects the influence of ISIL over other terrorist groups, ISIL’s capacity for inspiring changes in other groups’ propaganda strategies, and ISIL’s position as a model terrorist organization in the minds of the Boko Haram leadership. Boko Haram is providing wholesale verbal support to ISIL by placing itself under the black banner. This could mean that ISIL has the ability to issue directives to Boko Haram, but operational cooperation is yet to be confirmed.
Boko Haram’s recent expansion into the social media sphere and alignment with the global rather than regional jihad gives them the ability to recruit Americans. The internationalization of the organization will attract the same cohort of individuals in the United States who are sympathetic to ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other global jihadist groups. These foreign fighters would not necessarily be Nigerian emigrants, who are largely Christian, but jihadist sympathizers of various nationalities. An American eager to join the global jihad could travel to Nigeria to fight for Boko Haram in much the same way he could travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab, or Yemen to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The possibility of foreign fighters joining Boko Haram may also increase as the group continues to project itself as a formidable military entity. Online propaganda reinforces the perception of Boko Haram as a force superior to the Nigerian army. Strength is attractive to prospective jihadists.
At the regional level, African governments must counter Boko Haram’s online propaganda. The United States should encourage Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to strategically counter Boko Haram’s messaging. The language of the countermeasures should be Kanuri to reflect the language of Boko Haram’s constituency and to define the problem as a regional one.
At the international level, the United States should implement a broader information campaign of its own, propagating a counter message that seeks to:
1) Prevent the emergence of a terrorist safe haven in Boko Haram-controlled territory
To prevent the emergence of a terrorist safe haven, the United States must diminish the internationalization of Boko Haram by portraying it as a Nigeria-specific entity. The United States may be able to prevent Boko Haram from exploiting territory for use by international militants. Shutting down social media accounts used by Boko Haram is key in this regard because Boko Haram cannot as effectively project itself as an international terrorist organization without social media.
2) Sabotage any potential operational collaboration between Boko Haram and ISIL
To prevent Boko Haram and ISIL from collaborating, the US intelligence community should use human assets and political warfare to plant disinformation in both camps in order to sow discord between them. Disinformation should exploit fundamental differences between Boko Haram and ISIL, such as race and ideological divergences, to sabotage any existing partnership.
3) Prevent Americans from joining Boko Haram
To counter the potential flow of American recruits to Boko Haram, the United States must continue to pressure tech companies to suspend Boko Haram social media accounts. Boko Haram videos featuring English and Arabic language subtitles should be specifically targeted. In addition, Boko Haram should be portrayed as a failing terrorist organization in the news media to deter jihadist aspirants.
This multipronged information campaign at the regional and international level will effectively dismantle the social media strategy of Boko Haram.
Josh Forgét is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University concentrating on terrorism and substate violence.
 Jacob Zenn, “Mindful of the Islamic State, Boko Haram Broadens Reach into Lake Chad Region,” Terrorism Monitor, 13:3, February 6, 2015.
 Jacob Zenn, “Leadership Analysis of Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria,” CTC Sentinel, February 24, 2014.
 Rukmini Callimachi, “In Newly Sophisticated Boko Haram Videos, Hint of Islamic State Ties,” The New York Times, February 20, 2015.
 Tim Lister, “Boko Haram + ISIS = Marriage From Hell,” CNN, February 25, 2015. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/25/world/boko-haram-lister-analysis/.
 The Soufan Group, “TSG IntelBrief: Boko Haram’s “Local” Foreign Fighters,” http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-boko-harams-local-foreign-fighters/.
 Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram;s International Connections,” CTC Sentinel, January 14, 2013.