Boko Haram: What It Means to Swear an Oath

In response to the fact that Nigerian terror group Boko Haram has sworn allegiance to Islamic States, analysts have primarily seized on what benefit Boko Haram is expected to get out of it, and whether the Nigerian insurgency needed a “propaganda” boost, at a time when they are facing a coalition of African states seeking to roll back them back.

This focusing solely on the question of benefit seems logical to the average western analyst, but is deeply problematic.

First, what is Boko Haram? An insurgency? A terrorist organization? Boko Haram, in their own words, is a jamaat (group) dedicated to dawa (proselytizing) and jihad (warfare against unbelievers). These words in and of themselves are pregnant with significance.

Consider from the prospective of those whom Boko Haram considers a relevant authority on these matters. Founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 reportedly stated that: “All Islamic scholars who undermine Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna and Osama Bin Laden are not authentic Islamic scholars.” Sayyid Qutb, in his seminal work “Milestones” had this to say about Dawa and Jihad:

“The movement uses the methods of preaching and persuasion (Dawa) for reforming ideas and beliefs and it uses physical power and Jihad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili (pre-Islamic) system.” 

As a Dawa and Jihad organization adhering to Qutb’s methodology, Boko Haram from the beginning was oriented towards the eventual seizure of territory upon which to rule while abolishing Nigerian rule.

Having reached a stage (or milestone as Qutb would have called it), where they felt it appropriate, Boko Haram announced in August of 2014 the establishment of an Islamic state over the territory they controlled in Northern Nigeria. At the time many western analysts misunderstood this claim to be one of a “rival” caliphate. Boko Haram reaffirmed its position of ruling territory in January of this year, noting in discussing its seizure of the town of Baga:

“As for it’s importance to us, it’s because of it removes that military presence from the lands of the Islamic state, and hence establish the Shariah of Allah in the region, and attain safety and security in it for Muslims.”

It was during this period that Boko Haram began openly expressing itself with Islamic State imagery, including their version of the black shahada flag, and using nasheeds (acapella singing) popular with IS fighters in their videos.

Finally the Boko Haram’s Shura Council was previously reported to be considering whether or not to swear an oath to “Caliph” AbuBakr Al-Baghdadi. Having finally done so, it has been reported as an “alliance” or a “team up” but the reality is different. An oath to a caliph carries with it significant implications. Regarding the oath, Islamic jurist Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) wrote:

It should be known that the bay’ah (oath of allegiance) is a contract to render obedience. It is as though the person who renders the oath of allegiance made a contract with his amir, to the effect that he surrenders supervision of his own affairs and those of the Muslims to him and that he will not contest his authority in any of (those affairs) and that he will obey him by (executing) all the duties with which he might be charged, whether agreeable or disagreeable.

In practice, because of geographical distance, and because Boko Haram remains capable of operating independently, it’s unlikely that this degree of total control would be applied, particularly if Boko Haram is granted the position of an IS Province), but legally that is what has been sworn.  It’s an oath which is pre-modern in its conception, and attempting to understand it in the context of  a joint venture between two companies, or a nation-state alliance is an error. 

As regards Islamic State’s view of the matter, many questioned whether Boko Haram’s oath would be accepted (it appears to have been). This should come has no surprise either, because Islamic State has explicitly told groups like Boko Haram that such an oath is not only welcome, but “obligatory.” The Islamic State noted in its Caliphate Declaration (This is the Promise of Allah) that: 

We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilāfah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalīfah Ibrāhīm and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilāfah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas. (emphasis added).

This would seem to suggest that the Islamic State is now in the position to offer at least some level (of possibly technical) assistance to Boko Haram, thus representing an “arrival of its troops.” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has already claimed that Islamic State has been training Boko Haram’s forces, although whether that’s true remains to be seen.

Seeking to understand and analyze jihadist organizations absent the context of the sharia law that dictates their actions and which they hold as legally binding and obligatory,  continues to mislead and confuse.

About Kyle Shideler

Kyle Shideler is the Director of the Threat Information Office (TIO) at the Center for Security Policy. Kyle works to inject serious research and analysis on the subject of Islamic terrorism and Shariah law into the beltway policy discussion, by challenging false assumptions and providing fully documented resources, primary research and influential talking points to policymakers, journalists, and foreign relations professionals. Kyle has previously served as a Director of Research and Communications, Senior Researcher, and Public Information Officer for several organizations in the field of Middle East and terrorism policy since 2006. He is a contributing author to “Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network: America and the West’s Fatal Embrace,” and has written for numerous publications as well as briefed legislative aides, intelligence and law enforcement officials, and the general public on the threat posed by Islamist influence and penetration operations.