"We announce our allegiance to the Caliph ... and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease." -Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau
Over the weekend, the Nigerian based extremist group Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to the violent militant faction in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS. As one of the most powerful and dangerous groups of its kind, this pledge of cooperation and loyalty is a big win for the self-styled Caliph of the Muslim world Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Boko Haram has been increasing in both power and brutality over the past several years, and this new alliance has the potential to make matters worse. What does all of this mean in the greater fight against armed religious extremism? First, let's investigate the Islamic version of the concept of allegiance used by Boko Haram and what it means for the image of ISIS.
In Islam, the concept of pledging allegiance and support for a ruler is known as bay'ah. Bay'ah traces all the way back to the original Islamic society under the Prophet Muhammad and the tribes which began supporting him over time. By pledging bay'ah, one is promising to submit to another's authority and carry out their wishes if commanded. This is not unlike oaths of fealty in medieval times or international treaties of mutual defense today.
This basically brings the two organizations into much closer contact and publicly announces that they are working together to achieve similar aims. In addition to potentially coordinating attacks and sharing information, Boko Haram can now use its influence to recruit more followers to the cause of ISIS, and ISIS to Boko Haram. The two organizations are separated by hundreds of miles, so direct coordination between the two would be difficult. However, the support of Boko Haram lends an important sense of "legitimacy" to the organization in its push for recognition as its (deranged) version of the purest Muslim society.
What is Boko Haram anyway and why are they so important? The phrase "Boko Haram" roughly translates into "Western education is forbidden." Like many other groups of its kind, Boko Haram is angry at the perceived spread of "Western" values and will ruthlessly fight any attempts to secularize society. The group sprung up in the early 2000s and has ties to the original version of al-Qaeda as organized by Osama bin Laden. They are comprised of around 10,000 members, and have seized control of small sections of territory in northeast Nigeria, and in some small sections of nearby Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. Like ISIS, they take over territory and brutally suppress any opposition, murdering, extorting, and torturing all who would attempt to stop them.
If Boko Haram seems vaguely familiar, it is because this organization has made some headlines before in the American press (though not nearly as often as they should have). Their brutality and callous disregard for human life is obvious. Last year, Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, committing mass rape and forcing most of them into labor camps or arranged marriages. This sparked off the Twitter awareness campaign #bringbackourgirls (nearly all of these girls are still missing or presumed dead). Though the Twitter activism this event spawned was helpful to bring attention to the matter, in the end it did little to actually bring back their girls. More recently in early January, the insurgent group attacked the village of Baga and massacred over 2,000 of its residents. Unfortunately, this event received relatively little coverage in comparison, In short, Boko Haram has been terrorizing the Nigerian government for over a decade, and is (by some estimates) more powerful and well organized than Nigeria's official military forces.
This means that Boko Haram is clearly a threat to both Nigeria and the entire central-west region of Africa. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and home to some of the largest oil reserves on the continent. The country's northeast region has over half a million refugees, and the political landscape of Nigeria increases the possibility that Boko Haram can gain control of even more areas of the county, just like ISIS did last summer in Iraq and Syria. Though such a large-scale takeover of even more Nigerian territory is still unlikely, increased terror attacks in the region are a certainty. Thus far, Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan has been painfully slow to acknowledge the threat of Boko Haram and his country's instability. Though Nigeria and some of its neighbors are launching a counteroffensive against Boko Haram, the fight is far from over. Thousands will continue to die in the meantime.
So what does this mean for global terrorism or the threat of attacks against American targets? As far as global terrorism is concerned, it is still unclear how or if this will change things considerably. The primary focus of Boko Haram's attacks have been regional rather than global. Unless Boko Haram and ISIS change their strategies towards actively planning global attacks (now they only encourage them rather than actually help coordinate them) it doesn't seem likely that this will directly threaten the rest of the world. If anything, it might only encourage some sympathetic individuals to commit "lone wolf" attacks against small scale targets. In all of this, it is important to remember that the average person is still more likely to die in a bathtub than by a terrorist attack.
A much greater direct threat would come from some of the various al-Qaeda inspired groups pledging bay'ah to ISIS. Right now, this seems unlikely as al-Qaeda's various offshoots in North Africa, Yemen, and the Levant are still divided on both leadership and focus (they differ on attacking the "near enemy" of regional powers vs the "far enemy" of Europe or the United States, among other things). If such an alliance did solidify and become more than just paying lip-service to a fellow violent Islamic group, it could turn the message of ISIS towards attacking targets at home rather than encouraging supporters to travel to Syria and Iraq to perform their twisted version of jihad. As we have seen before, this particular ideology has more direct implications for U.S. policy and more directly threatens "Westerners."
In all, it's clear the problem of ISIS is still growing at an alarming rate, but we shouldn't expect this to be a permanent alliance. Extremely headstrong and zealous groups such as these often fall apart once they are presented with real challenges or ideological disagreements. Just like al-Qaeda in its original form, it only takes a few serious problems or leadership changes before they splinter and break up. Naturally, those seeking to fight these organizations will work to expose and exploit those differences. While this strategy will help weaken their ability to fight, it will not outright defeat them. As citizens, we can't really do much to stop Boko Haram or ISIS directly. But as humans, we can help make lives in the region just a little bit better through charity and encouraging the development of education and infrastructure. This isn't the quick solution, but ultimately it is the most effective.
TL;DR: This is probably just a political stunt to make ISIS look good. Either way, you're not going to get attacked by either group. It's the people caught in the middle of their power struggle who really suffer.