By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Islamic State has accepted a pledge of allegiance by Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, announcing the expansion of the Syrian-based organization into sub-Saharan Africa on Thursday.
In a move seen as a propaganda boost to Islamic State, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau last week pledged allegiance to the extremist group, which has conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq and has declared its goal to establish a global state, or caliphate, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Thousands of fighters from around the world have traveled to Syria to fight with Islamic State, including by becoming suicide bombers. They include Australian teen, Jake Bilardi, 18, who reportedly died in a suicide attack this week.
Islamic State’s formal acceptance of the pledge was widely expected. Boko Haram’s declaration was celebrated by Islamic State supporters, according to Twitter accounts purporting to be associated with the group. Photographs were circulated of fighters praising the move and sheep being slaughtered in celebration.
“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,” said Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani in an audio message posted online.
Adnani called on Muslims who couldn’t get to Syria to travel to the land of Islam and join Boko Haram’s fight instead.
The pledge comes at a time when both Boko Haram and Islamic State have reportedly suffered military setbacks.
Boko Haram declared its own Islamic state last year, capturing a large swath of territory, but its ability to run a state and hold territory is in doubt after a regional military force has driven its militants from more than 30 towns in recent weeks.
The African Union has endorsed a force of 10,000 soldiers to fight Boko Haram.
With just over two weeks to go before Nigerian elections, President Goodluck Jonathan told Voice of America on Thursday that Boko Haram would be defeated in a matter of days — although Nigerian leaders have often boasted that Boko Haram faced defeat, only to see it re-emerge.
In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State has faced airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition as it battles the Syrian army and Kurdish forces. In Iraq, army forces and militias have advanced into Tikrit, a militant stronghold and the hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The acceptance of Boko Haram’s pledge comes as Islamic State challenges al-Qaida as the assumed leader of the Islamist jihadist movements.
Islamic State has threatened to attack Europe as part of its ideological goal of taking over Rome. It has also issued threats against the U.S., France, Italy, Britain, Australia and Canada, countries that are part of the coalition carrying out airstrikes against the group.
“We want, God willing, Paris before Rome,” Adnani said in the audio recording.