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Under fire in Iraq, Islamic State accepts Boko Haram as affiliate

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(Read caption) This photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, shows their leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera, May 12, 2014. Islamic State militants have accepted a pledge of allegiance by the Nigerian-grown Boko Haram extremist group, a spokesman for the Islamic State movement said Thursday, March 12, 2015. On Saturday, Shekau posted an audio recording online that pledged allegiance to IS. On Thursday, the Islamic State group's media arm Al-Furqan, in an audio recording by spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said that Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance has been accepted, claiming the caliphate has now expanded to West Africa.

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The self-styled Islamic State says it accepts a pledge of allegiance by Boko Haram, a move that may add a new dimension in Nigeria's fight against the jihadist group.

In an audio recording released Thursday, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said that Boko Haram's pledge has been accepted and that now “no one can stand in its path,” the Associated Press reports. The agreement mirrors the steps taken by other Sunni jihadist groups in Libya and Egypt.

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“Our caliph, God save him, has accepted the pledge of loyalty of our brothers of Boko Haram so we congratulate Muslims and our jihadi brothers in West Africa,” Mr. al-Adnani said, referring to his group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A multinational force of West African armies, led by Nigeria, has been on the offensive against Boko Haram two weeks ahead of a Nigerian election that was itself delayed to allow a greater crack down on the Islamist group. 

The most immediate payoff from Boko Haram’s point of view is a propaganda and possible recruiting boost: Boko Haram gets an expanded social media presence with the Islamic State’s help, while the Islamic State gains the support of its largest affiliate yet, the Christian Science Monitor reported. 

This new alliance, and the possibility of foreign support for Boko Haram, is bad news for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running for reelection. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, told the Associated Press that militants struggling to enter places like Syria and Iraq, may instead travel to West Africa. In the audio recording, the Islamic State spokesman called on Muslim volunteers to do just that.

In the past month, Nigeria and its neighbors have scored some gains, reclaiming many towns formerly held by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria’s northeast. Boko Haram has, as a defensive move, attacked and pushed into towns in and around Lake Chad. 

Boko Haram has long vowed to disrupt the Nigerian government and its leader, Abubakar Shekau, has extended that aim to the Nigerian election, claiming that even “Allah would not allow it to happen.”

President Jonathan is in a tight race against opponent Muhammadu Buhari, a former military general. 

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Since IS began taking territory last spring, Mr. Shekau has declared his admiration for the group. Both declare a desire to create a territorial Islamic caliphate; Boko Haram has been talking about the idea for at least six years. The New York Times reports that, while the practical meaning of the alliance remains unclear, signs of it have been evident for more than a year:

For roughly 18 months, there have been growing signs of at least links of solidarity between the organizations, as well as suggestions that the Islamic State has been grooming Boko Haram for entry into its network. Last year, Boko Haram’s leader declared his support for the leader of the Islamic State, and began using the Islamic State battle hymn as the soundtrack for videos documenting his atrocities.

Analysts have also noted a growing professionalism in Boko Haram’s videos, which had previously been shot with hand-held cameras and posted haphazardly on YouTube. The new videos were noticeably more polished and used images that mimicked the visual vocabulary of the Islamic State.

Like Boko Haram, the Islamic State appears to be on the defense in Iraq. It is struggling to hold off Iraqi forces seeking to recapture the town of Tikrit, while also coming under fire from US-led coalition airstrikes.