Boko Haram’s Pledge to ISIS and the Politicization of Intelligence Analysis

It is no surprise that the result of the Boko Haram Shura council meeting resulted in a pledge of allegiance by Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Kyle Shideler, director of the Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy spelled out very clearly why Boko Haram would come to such a conclusion in order to be consistent with Islamic Law.

It is fair to assume that many analysts worth their salt in the intelligence community came to the same conclusion.  One must assume however because this outcome is contrary to the narrative of the U.S. administration when describing their strategic understanding of each group.  In his testimony at the most recent hearing on Boko Haram in late January, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at State’s Bureau of African Affairs, Robert Jackson took liberty to make this point about the difference between the two groups,

You asked about branding Boko Haram.  I would note that Daesh and al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Mahgreb have disassociated themselves from Boko Haram because they consider it such an extreme organization.”

He seemed to take issue as the sub-committee chairman, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, quite accurately referred to Boko Haram as ‘ISIS in Africa.’   As Shideler pointed out, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official pushed hard against the association between Boko Haram and ISIS in the press in late February, echoing Jackson’s January testimony.

At first glance to an intelligence analyst, the disconnect might be explained by a failure to account for a classic bias known as ‘mirror imaging.’  This is where the analyst fails to account for the logic native to the culture and world view of the object of his or her analysis.  He fails to think how the enemy thinks.

That is not a sufficient explanation for the administration’s need to help the media dissociate Boko Haram from ISIS and al Qaeda despite the key unifying factors; ideology, war doctrine, and religion.  That would mean that the best of our intelligence community are ultimately incompetent in their basic function to identify the intent and capability of hostile actors.

It is more likely that a strategic understanding of Boko Haram and it’s intentions have been available within the intelligence community as far back as 2009 when the State Department first refused to designate Boko Haram as a designated terrorist organization.  Boko Haram’s pledge to ISIS is not a symptom of a failure of intelligence analysis.  It is evidence politicized intelligence.  Boko Haram’s atrocities are symptoms of Al Qaeda’s beliefs and goals.  They move forward in different manifestations under different names but they trace back to the same war strategy.  It’s one that we knew about all along.

Had we recognized the strategic nature of the similarities of these groups in 2009, we would have had a war footing to fight Boko Haram.  There were already funded counter-terrorism programs in place which, under the Terrorist Organization Designation, Boko Haram would not have been able to fester until 2013.  If you look at the State Department’s narrative then, denying that Boko Haram had a jihadist agenda, you can see the pattern of intelligence cherry picking begin.  Members of the press should keep pulling that thread.  Pretending to have a nuanced understanding of terrorist groups to avoid political implications has cost Africa thousands of innocent lives.