The video bears many of the hallmarks of Islamic State propaganda: flashy graphics, dramatic sound effects, the infamous “Black Standard” flag bearing white Arabic script on a black background and a final, brutal beheading of two alleged spies.
But this video is not from the militant organization that has terrorized much of Syria and Iraq. Instead, it was posted by a Twitter account affiliated with Boko Haram, the Nigerian group responsible for the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls last spring that has violently fought to establish an Islamic “caliphate” in the country’s northeast.
The beheading video is just the latest piece of propaganda from Boko Haram that seems to emulate the Islamic State’s media strategy. Two weeks ago, another video from a now-suspended Boko Haram account showed a man appearing to be the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, delivering a screed against the Nigerian government and its allies alongside high-definition graphics and the waving Black Standard flag. That same account had been seen interacting with Islamic State-affiliated Twitter feeds, prompting journalists and terrorism watchers to question whether the two groups are coordinating.
“Islamic State in Africa,” read a dramatic headline from the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium about the beheading video. The consortium used an acronym for the Islamic State: “2nd Boko Haram video shows ISIS acceptance as a branch, facilitates its media.”
The fear that Boko Haram has become another wing of Islamic State is overhyped, many analysts say. But the Nigerian group’s evolving media strategy does signal that it is least emulating, if not explicitly working with, its counterpart to the east.
The new video was a departure from Boko Haram’s films of a few months ago, most of which were poorly recorded on low-resolution cameras. It starts with graphics that seem plucked out of a video game — flashing lights and undulating rows of zeros and ones set to a soundtrack of swooshing noises and digital beeps. Titled “Harvest of Spies,” it then shows dimly lit, slow-motion footage of what appears to be Boko Haram militants walking before turning to the horrific main event.
Two knife-wielding executioners, their faces blurred, stand behind a pair of alleged spies. One of the executioners questions his victim, forcing him to tell the camera that he had been paid by authorities to monitor the militant group. There’s the sound of heavy breathing and heartbeats. The next shot shows the two victims lying on the ground, their heads perched grotesquely atop their bodies.
It’s not the content of the video that concerns analysts — sadly, this is not the first time Boko Haram has conducted a beheading or exploited it for propaganda — but their style.
“The videos carry both a production and distribution footprint of Islamic State,” said Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for sub-Saharan Africa at the terrorism think tank Red24.
The high quality of the video indicates that its production was outsourced — possibly to the same groups responsible for Islamic State media — and the music and staging of the beheading seem to pay homage to Islamic State films, Cummings said in a phone interview.
Zacharias Pieri, an expert on Islamist movements, added that the camera angles and use of special sound effects (like the heavy breathing and heartbeat) are characteristic of Islamic State propaganda.
Although the focus on a beheading drew instant comparisons to high–profile execution videos released by the Islamic State in recent months, both Cummings and Pieri said that the actual execution is the most distinctly Boko Haram aspect of the video. Unlike the Islamic State beheadings, in which the victims are often Western and the rhetoric seems aimed at provoking Westerners, the Boko Haram video is targeted toward a regional audience. The executioner is a secondary character, unlike the infamous “Jihadi John” in Islamic State videos, the victims are Nigerian, and the curt interrogation of the alleged “spies” seems to mimic a court proceeding more than a random act of violence.
“The video is trying to create a perception that Boko Haram is handing out justice, if you can call it that, to so-called enemies, and also trying to discourage further cooperation from local people to their respective governments in combating the group,” Cummings said.
“Just because something looks similar on first gaze, there can still be a very distinct message Boko Haram is trying to send,” he added.
Pieri believes that the video has a dual role — first, to intimidate people in Nigeria and neighboring countries where the militant group operates, and second, to earn approval from the Islamic State.
“It’s like they’re saying, look, we as a jihadi movement in West Africa recognize what you’re doing and not only do we want to emulate that but we’re seeking some form of legitimacy,” he said in a phone interview.
Boko Haram has made overtures to Islamic State before — last summer, Shekau voiced support for leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video announcement. And it would be a “feather in Boko Haram’s cap,” as Pieri put it, for the group to gain approval from the world’s most infamous terrorist group.
But Boko Haram has goals distinct from Islamic State. While the latter group operates on a global scale, recruiting fighters from around the world and claiming to seek the creation of a vast caliphate, the former’s focus is almost entirely regional.
Boko Haram says it wants to reclaim the territory once encompassed by the Bornu Empire, which included northeastern Nigeria and parts of Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
“Their main goal is to revive a caliphate across those lands … not to become an international jihadi movement,” Pieri said.
Questions about a possible link between Boko Haram and the Islamic State may say more about Western concerns over the two groups than it does about the organizations themselves. In a phone interview before this latest video was published, Nigeria analyst Andrew Walker said that Westerners often talk about Boko Haram in terms of other terrorist groups because it makes the organization easier to understand.
“Before Islamic State, everyone was always talking about ‘Is Boko Haram connected to al-Qaeda?’ ” he said. “We are waiting to have this connection to another bigger force before we go and do something about it.”
Walker and Pieri both noted that Boko Haram predates the Islamic State — its current insurgency has been going on since 2009.
“It’s not that IS appeared and Boko Haram was suddenly inspired,” Pieri said, using another acronym for the Islamic State. “What has changed is tactics, not ideology.”
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