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Nigeria's Boko Haram Pledges To Back Islamic State

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two of the world's most ruthless extremist groups might be joining forces - if not on the ground, at least in spirit and online. The leader of Nigeria's Boko Haram is purportedly pledging allegiance to the head of the Islamic State. This statement from the Boko Haram leader came in a tweeted recording. The authenticity of that recording cannot be verified. But if it is true, this could give the Islamic State its first foothold in sub-Saharan Africa. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is on the line from Lagos, Nigeria's main city. Ofeibea, good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

GREENE: So tell us what this alliance could possibly mean if it actually is happening.

QUIST-ARCTON: Depends who you speak to, David. But most analysts are saying this is definitely a shot in the arm and a propaganda boost for both groups, ISIS and Boko Haram. And both of their fortunes seemed to have been flagging somewhat recently. It would make ISIS look more global and Boko Haram itself look more international because its fight has been restricted mainly to Nigeria and of late the neighboring countries for the past six years so. But most people say it won't immediately change what's happening on the ground either in Nigeria, or Syria-Iraq.

GREENE: Well, Ofeibea, many of us remember Boko Haram for the horror of that kidnapping of those schoolgirls. I mean, can you tell us anything about the group that suggests why they would want this alliance with ISIS now?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because Boko Haram is reeling from this regional offensive by Nigeria and its neighbors. Troops just this weekend - yesterday, Sunday troops from Chad and Niger intensified their attacks on Boko Haram. But this relationship isn't new, David. These two groups have been courting - if I can put it that way - for quite a while now. For example, after Boko Haram kidnapped the Chibok schoolgirls in the Northeast, the leader of ISIS said that this was justification for kidnapping Yazidi women and girls in Iraq, so they've been flirting for a while.

GREENE: You're saying they - that ISIS, which kidnapped people in the Yazidi, the ethnic group where we saw those people trapped on that mountainside in Iraq - they almost used Boko Haram as a model in a way.

QUIST-ARCTON: That is exactly what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, purportedly said in the ISIS magazine, I'm told.

GREENE: Well, Ofeibea, help me understand this - al-Qaida and ISIS, as we've reported, not natural allies. And I thought Boko Haram had some sort of alliance with al-Qaida.

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yes, it did. And Boko Haram fighters even moved to Mali when Islamist militants overtook and occupied the North for more than a year. And one would've thought that al-Qaida would be a more natural bedfellow for Boko Haram because they are very powerful in this region. But I've been told by specialists that Boko Haram has shown an ability to evolve at an almost dizzying pace and its leadership has shown a great flexibility in ideology and method. So maybe Boko Haram sees at this point that it's better for it to ally with ISIS rather than al-Qaida, which, of course, has tensions and conflicts and competition with ISIS right now.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's in Nigeria's main city, Lagos. Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.