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Boko Haram Takes A Page From ISIS Propaganda Playbook

Mar 5, 2015
Originally published on March 5, 2015 6:55 pm

In its latest video, Islamist extremists from the Nigerian group Boko Haram display the bodies of two men accused of spying. They have been beheaded.

Gone are Boko Haram's occasional grainy videos, replaced by slick productions apparently inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

It's a development that may indicate a shift in allegiance by Boko Haram away from al-Qaida.

For the past few years, Abubakar Shekau has been the face of the Boko Haram insurgency — dominating the group's videos, which showed him in military fatigues, clutching an AK-47 rifle and surrounded by masked gunmen bristling with weapons.

In a video last year, he taunts the Nigerian government after Boko Haram abducted about 300 boarding school girls from their dorms almost a year ago.

Shekau told the world the girls had converted to Islam and been married off to his fighters, and he vowed to establish a caliphate in areas captured by Boko Haram.

But the group's leader doesn't feature in its latest videos, which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of ISIS, says Kayode Akindele, a Nigeria-based financial, political and risk analyst for TIA Capital.

"We've seen Boko Haram step up their PR campaign, especially in the last two to three recordings they've released. The campaign is more professionally done, and they seem to provide less of a focus of Shekau," Akindele says. "It seems to be a change of strategy."

The latest video, Harvest of Spies, shows the apparent beheading of two people Boko Haram accused of spying. The images echo ISIS productions, even using the sound of a beating heart and deep breathing in the background.

Beheadings are not new to Boko Haram, says Akindele, but showing video of the purported executions is. Yet he doesn't believe this heralds the start of a deeper relationship between the Nigerian insurgents and ISIS.

"Boko Haram has had every opportunity to proclaim allegiance towards ISIS. They haven't," Akindele says. "One of the latest videos by Shekau, he praised ISIS, but did not pledge allegiance in that sense."

Akindele thinks Boko Haram has a very specific focus: Nigeria, West Africa, and says Boko Haram's new ISIS-inspired media arm is targeting the neighbors — Niger, Chad and Cameroon. These French-speaking countries recently joined Nigeria in a regional offensive against Boko Haram, following intensified cross-border attacks blamed on the group.

"If you notice from the last couple of videos, they've started doing French translations," says Akindele. "I think a lot of these videos are now targeted to instil fear and maybe support among those populations."

"I think they don't have any wider aspirations, as ISIS does, of a global umma or caliphate," he says.

Peter Pham, director of the Washington-based Atlantic Council's Africa Center, has a different perspective.

"We've seen over the course of the last year what I call a convergence — not necessarily evidence of command and control or direct coordination, but shout-outs to each other," says Pham.

After Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls last year, ISIS militants kidnapped Yazidi women and girls, and according to Pham, [ISIS'] magazine "actually cited what the Nigerians had done as a precedent, justification for what they'd done."

Pham says the U.S. should be concerned by Boko Haram's flirtation with ISIS.

"With Boko Haram, the danger is to use the past to analyze the present, much less to predict the future. This is a group that has shown its ability to evolve at an almost dizzying pace," Pham says. "And its leadership has shown a great flexibility in ideology and methods, depending on who they choose to align with."

Nigeria has pledged to contain Boko Haram by the time postponed elections are held on March 28, but deadly suicide bombings continue as the insurgents battle the regional forces now lining up against them. The vote was delayed because of security concerns in the northeast — Boko Haram's stronghold.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgents appear to be taking a leaf from the propaganda playbook of ISIS extremists. In the latest video from the group, militants display the bodies of two men accused of spying. They have been beheaded. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton explores whether these moves indicate a shift in allegiance by Boko Haram away from al-Qaida.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOKO HARAM PROPAGANDA VIDEO)

ABUBAKAR SHEKAU: (Singing in foreign language).

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: For the past few years, Abubakar Shekau has been the face of Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency, dominating the group's grainy videos. He's wearing military fatigues and clutching an AK-47. In this video, he taunts the government after Boko Haram abducted about 300 boarding school girls almost a year ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOKO HARAM PROPAGANDA VIDEO)

SHEKAU: (Speaking foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: Shekau told the world the girls had been converted to Islam and had been married off to his fighters. And he vowed to establish a caliphate in areas captured by Boko Haram. But he doesn't feature in the group's latest ISIS-style videos, says Nigeria-based political and risk analyst for TIA Capital, Kayode Akindele.

KAYODE AKINDELE: We've seen Boko Haram step up their PR campaign, especially in the last two to three recordings they've released, where their campaign is more professionally done. It seems to be a change of strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOKO HARAM PROPAGANDA VIDEO)

QUIST-ARCTON: This is the opening music from the latest video, "Harvest Of Spies," which goes on to show the apparent beheading of two people accused by Boko Haram of spying. The images echo ISIS productions, even using the sound of a beating heart and deep breathing in the background.

Beheadings are not new to Boko Haram, says Akindele, but showing video of the purported executions is. Yet he doesn't believe this heralds the start of a deeper relationship between the Nigerian insurgents and ISIS.

AKINDELE: One of the last views about Shekau - he praised ISIS, but did not pledge allegiance in that sense. So I think Boko Haram is a - the focus is very Nigeria - regional focus - African, West African regional focus. I think they don't have any wider aspirations as ISIS does in terms of like a worldwide global umma or caliphate.

QUIST-ARCTON: A different perspective from Peter Pham of the U.S.-based Atlantic Council. He also closely monitors the group.

PETER PHAM: We've seen over the course of the last year what I call a convergence - not necessarily evidence of command and control or direct coordination, but shout-outs to each other.

For example, after Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls - subsequently, when the so-called Islamic State kidnapped the Yazidi women and girls, their magazine actually cited what the Nigerians had done as justification for what they did.

QUIST-ARCTON: Pham says the U.S. should be concerned by Boko Haram's flirtation with ISIS.

PHAM: With Boko Haram, the danger is to use the past to analyze the present, much less to predict the future. This is a group that has shown its ability to evolve at, you know, an almost dizzying pace. And its leadership has shown a great flexibility in ideology and methods, depending on whom they choose to align with.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nigeria has pledged to contain Boko Haram by elections rescheduled for March 28, but deadly suicide bombings continue as the insurgents battle the regional forces now ranged against them. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.