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Africa

Opinion: Butchers' alliance

Is the "Islamic State," feared for atrocities and the destruction of priceless artifacts, about to expand its operations to sub-Saharan Africa? Claus Stäcker sees a meeting of terrorist minds but no overarching plan.

It was a recorded audio message; the content highly volatile. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau has apparently pledged allegiance to self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The message evokes a terrifying vision of an Islamist terror network stretching from Iraq and Syria to Libya and West Africa, the prospect of the ever faster globalization of terror and of a wide-ranging alliance of terrorists who butcher and murder their victims.

Yet we should be wary of rushing to conclusions. There are doubts about the authenticity of the message. The supposed leader of Boko Haram has had many more lives than the proverbial nine attributed to felines. Nigeria's police declared him dead on several separate occasions in 2009, yet he frequently reappears in videos after Boko Haram attacks or kidnappings. These images are not enough to confirm the identity of the bloodthirsty leader of the Islamist sect and there is a theory - not to be easily dismissed - that these videos show several different individuals rather than a sole Abubakar Shekau. A recorded message, moreover, would be far easier to fake than video.

Taliban, al Qaeda, IslamicState

The message itself does, however, have an authentic ring to it. "We call on Muslims all over the world to obey the Caliph," it said. This suggests an alliance designed to instill even more fear in a terrorized population; a union that would make Boko Haram appear even more terrifying. But this is neither a new nor a surprising development. When the Taliban were the world's most feared terror group, Boko Haram claimed kinship with them. When al Qaeda began to grow and spread and Salafist groups turned themselves into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) then Boko Haram could be heard voicing solidarity with the "brothers of al Qaeda." There were always vague references to the support these groups were supposedly receiving from Boko Haram. When al Baghdadi announced the founding of the "caliphate," the shadowy Shekau was quick to emulate IS. Boko Haram videos now have a number of hallmarks found on their IS counterparts.

Claus Stäcker

Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa service

But are terror attacks in Africa really being run by "Islamic State" (IS) in Iraq or Syria? Analysts and witnesses have evidence that points to cooperation between various groups. An ex-member of the Somali Islamist militant group al Shabab told DW that he had met Nigerians in Somali terror training camps. There are also reports of financial links between various groups and of a meeting between Boko Haram and AQIM. It is, however, most unlikely that Boko Haram is being controlled from afar by IS and that there exists a formal partnership between the two. Boko Haram has a history as a regional group, whose activities are far more closely intertwined with the complex power dynamics of Nigeria than with some all-encompassing ideology of global terror.

Nigerian domestic politics

The fight against Boko Haram is a key election issue in Nigeria and it would appear that any elevation in Boko Haram's status as a terrorist organization through its association with IS would benefit incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan the most. A hastily released government statement - "hopefully the world will now wake up and take note of the catastrophe" - gave an inkling of what might follow. Having IS as an opponent sounds a lot better than having a regional enemy - Boko Haram - that one cannot defeat. It calls out for alliances and international assistance. It also confers a degree of legitimacy on a ruler - Jonathan - who has just postponed elections because of security worries.

Of course, there is every reason for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice of what is happening in Nigeria. Boko Haram remains as dangerous as ever. But the international community - which has repeatedly offered Nigeria help in defeating the insurgents yet still finds it cannot trust the country - would be well advised to continue to tread with caution. The international community should not take sides in the Nigerian elections, nor should it allow itself to be exploited for grubby political ends.

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