Boko Haram, ISIS and al-Qaeda: how the jihadists compare

While Boko Haram in Nigeria doesn't have as much appeal to global jihadists as does ISIS, the two groups have been replicating each other's techniques of late.

Nigeria's Boko Haram getting less attention

Boko Haram is suspected of using girls as suicide bombers. Children stand near the scene of an explosion in a mobile phone market in Potiskum, Nigeria, Jan. 12. Two female suicide bombers targeted the busy marketplace the previous day. (Adamu Adamu/Associated Press)

Boko Haram, the vicious jihadist group carrying out attacks in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries, hasn't received the media and diplomatic attention that al-Qaeda and ISIS get.

But terrorism experts are now seeing growing similarities between Boko Haram and ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria.

While the world news media was focusing on the Charlie Hebdo and related killings in Paris, Boko Haram was apparently carrying out even bloodier attacks in northeastern Nigeria. 

That these massacres did not receive anywhere near the same media interest as the Paris attacks did not surprise Rita Abrahamsen, who's in Paris, teaching courses on African politics and African security at Sciences Po (Institut d'études politiques de Paris).

Unlike the Paris events, she says, Boko Haram's attacks have become an almost daily occurrence in remote northeastern Nigeria, and its violence can appear almost routine. 

Campaign posters for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, are going up in Lagos and elsewhere for the Feb. 14 election. Rita Abrahamsen says the president has every possible interest in playing down the Boko Haram attacks as much as possible and not drawing attention to them. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Abrahamsen contrasts that with Paris, where "the death toll was smaller but more shocking, and strikes at the heart of Europe."

The University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs professor, whose most recent book is Conflict and Security in Africa, is also a former journalist. Abrahamsen says it's not simply that journalists don't care about Nigeria.

But she points out that it's hard for any neutral observer to know what's really going on in northeastern Nigeria, and there's little, if any, video available of Boko Haram attacks. 

She also notes that the Nigerian government of Goodluck Jonathan — with an election set for Feb. 14 — "has every possible interest in playing this down as much as possible and not drawing attention to it." 

Divided country

Cédric Jourde, a West Africa expert at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, points out that in Lagos, Nigeria's — and Africa's — largest city, the newspapers don't have that much coverage of Boko Haram attacks either.

Nigeria is a country divided between north and south, and the region where Boko Haram operates is the most remote, the poorest and the furthest away from Lagos and the south. 

For people in the capital, the violence in the north is becoming banal, there's fatigue with the story, Jourde says.

Speaking during a panel discussion about Boko Haram on CBC Radio's The Current last week, Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert at Northeastern University in Boston, said that people think of Boko Haram's violence "less as a terrorist campaign and more as a civil war.

"And when it's seen as a civil war it tends to attract less international attention."

Learning from each other

Today, though, Boko Haram is more frequently being compared to ISIS, one of the main Islamist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war, and in Iraq. 

And both groups, it seems, have learned lessons from the other, and replicated each other's practices, even though there is no reliable evidence of any direct connection between the two.

However, Jourde says there's a probable connection between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in countries north of Nigeria. As part of the Sahel, northern Nigeria belongs to the same geographic, cultural and historic region, which includes Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

On the weekend, Boko Haram apparently carried out another mass kidnapping, this time in northern Cameroon. About 80 people, mostly women and children, were seized in the village of Mabass, but the Cameroon army claims to have freed about a third of the hostages.

Fighters from ISIS, the Islamic State group, parade down a main road in Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014. Both Boko Haram and ISIS have declared a caliphate. (Associated Press)

One thing both Boko Haram and ISIS do have in common is that both groups have declared a caliphate. 

But while ISIS does seem to have military control of an area of Syria and Iraq, for Boko Haram, Jourde says, it's only a claim at the moment, as the group doesn't appear to have asserted its authority over a territory and a population over a significant period of time.

"The notion of the caliphate supposes that all Muslims agree to follow that leader," Jourde says, but that's not the case here as Boko Haram's targets have apparently included mosques as well as leaders who practise Sufi Islam.

Abrahamsen says that Boko Haram's idea of seizing control seems to mean chasing out the army and police and all government institutions. Since most people also flee, there's not much left to rule.

Speaking on The Current, London-based analyst Imad Mesdoua said "there's no evidence [Boko Haram] are administering, in a formal sense, the areas that they control, in the same way that ISIS does."

Abrahamsen also questions whether Boko Haram is unified under leader Abubakar Shekau, and to what extent he controls the group.

Focused on Nigeria

While publicly Shekau has pushed a global jihad message similar to ISIS and al-Qaeda, in practice the group is focused on Nigeria and the countries on its northern border. 

ISIS also makes an effort, with considerable success, to attract jihadists from around the world, but Boko Haram is believed to have very few, if any, international members. 

For global jihadists, Nigeria doesn't have the same appeal as joining ISIS, says Jourde. There's no famous tyrant, like Syria's Bashar al-Assad to fight against, nor Western military involvement to draw them in.

Abrahamsen does note, however, that in the last half year or so, Boko Haram has been copying ISIS's approach in their propaganda videos, following their example in style, imagery and even logo.

Demonstrations and other efforts to recover the abducted Chibok school girls continue in Nigeria, like this event organised by the Chibok Community Association in collaboration with the #BringBackOurGirls group, in Abuja Jan. 1. The girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

The two groups also seem to be replicating each other's tactics, with mass kidnappings of women and widespread atrocities to terrify communities.

However, Jourde says those tactics are much older than both groups and have been used by militant groups and governments in many countries. Kidnappings are often carried out as a way to earn money and in the Sahel, mass enslavement and rape is nothing new, according to Jourde.

Even with the latest round of killings in Baga and nearby, Boko Haram is following an old tactic. The villages had formed self-defence groups, which Boko Haram considers collaborating with the army. Jourde explains that by killing everybody, Boko Haram sends a message to other villages: do not co-operate or collaborate with the government.

Given all that, Abrahamsen is concerned that "there is this temptation to wrap all these different types of movements into one big global threat, whereby people are going to rise up in all corners of the world against our Western lifestyle." 

But she says "that is not what is going on and I don't think it's a helpful approach, either politically or in terms of security responses."

Photos: Boko Haram's campaign of destruction in Nigeria