US officials on Thursday said there is no evidence that Boko Haram has received significant operational support or financing from the Islamic State.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in Washington, said more than a year after the group’s pledge of allegiance, it has no link with IS.
He added that after Boko Haram killed more than two dozen soldiers in Niger last week, it claimed the attack in the name of Islamic State-West Africa Province, a title meant to tell the world that it was an arm of the Syria-based extremist group.
The official suggested that Boko Haram’s loyalty pledge had so far mostly been a branding exercise designed to boost its international jihadi credentials, attract recruits and appeal to the IS leadership for assistance.
He said the US view of Boko Haram, which won global infamy for its 2014 kidnapping of 276 school girls, as a locally-focused, homegrown insurgency likely to keep the group more to the margins of the US fight against Islamic State in Africa.
The official said US military’s attention was largely centered on Libya, home to Islamic State’s strongest affiliate outside the Middle East and where the US carried out air strikes.
He stressed that “no such direct US intervention is currently being contemplated against Boko Haram.
“If there is no meaningful connection between ISIL and Boko Haram and we haven’t found one so far, then there are no grounds for US military involvement in West Africa other than assistance and training.”
Another official referred to it as an African fight and US could only assist.
The official said: “It is not American fight, rather, it is an African fight and we can assist them, but it’s their fight.”
A senior US official said securities were closely watching for any increased threat to Americans from Boko Haram and any confirmation of media reports of deepening ties with IS.
He said: “In spite of suffering a series of setbacks, Boko Haram remains lethal.
“It launched its deadliest raid in over a year last week, killing 30 soldiers and forcing 50,000 people to flee when it took over the Niger town of Bosso last week.”
The official added that the military action against ISIL in Iraq and Syria was conducted under legislation Congress passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks and authorised the use of American military power against “those responsible for” those attacks.
He noted that the Obama administration had interpreted it and included Islamic State as third-generation descendent of Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group, but not Boko Haram.
He said the security intelligence report about Boko Haram acknowledged that its internal structure and leadership was imperfect.
He explained: “The US has closely tracked ISIL’s leadership, finances and other activities, including its cooperation with other groups such as its branch in Libya, to which Islamic State has sent fighters, commanders and other support.
“However, multiple reports indicated that there are no evidence that Islamic State leaders, based in Syria and Iraq, have transferred significant amounts of cash or weapons or sent high-level representatives to Nigeria.”
The official said the absence of such evidence came as the administration of President Barack Obama debate how Washington and its allies could best support Nigeria and its neighbours.
He said: “Some US lawmakers have already argued that US aid to the region has been too heavily weighted toward security.
“A recent Congressional Research Service reports that US security assistance to the four African countries plagued by Boko Haram, Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon has soared to more than $400 million since 2014.
“This surpasses the aid for governance, human rights, education and rebuilding infrastructure.”
The official added that the Obama administration was poised to approve the sale of 12 attack aircraft to Nigeria to assist the country in the fight against the insurgents.
The official noted that US had offered to send a Special Operations mission to advise Nigerian units, and had dedicated more intelligence and surveillance assets to help African forces to fight Boko Haram.
He noted that some US Government experts warned that defeating it required Nigeria to boost policing, education and development in its Muslim-dominated northeast and to crack down on corruption.
Meanwhile, an administration official said it is easier to win congressional support for military assistance to fight extremist groups, especially if defence contracts were involved than it was to muster backing for steps to attack radicalism at its roots.
He said while it was estimated to have killed more than 15,000 people since 2009, Boko Haram had attacked US interests and deep roots in Nigeria’s Christian-Muslim divide, which long predated the Syrian-based Islamic extremist group.
“Those uncertainties fueled tension over how best to combat the group, and even how to characterise it,” the official said.
He added: “In public, U. officials rarely call the group Islamic State-West Africa Province, the name it adopted in March 2015.
“There have been periodic reports of cooperation between Boko Haram and ISIL’s Libyan branch.”
A senior US intelligence official said some Boko Haram fighters travelled to Libya “to work with Islamic State elements”.
He said its shadowy leader, Abubakr Shekau, established a relationship with the IS Libya branch.
Another US official viewed Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, primarily as a rebranding exercise.
He said the exercise was aimed at boosting the stature of his group, whose leaders previously said it was aligned with al-Qaeda.
US officials and private experts say they fear that as the African military pressure intensifies, the extremists could shift from a regional campaign of suicide bombings, rape and pillage to striking international targets.
Another US official said the resources and intent of ISIL to attack Western targets, combined with Boko’s ability and strength in that part of Africa is a mix that causes great concern.
Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy, a Foreign Relations Committee member, said: “Whatever its cooperation with Islamic State, Boko Haram is so deadly that Nigeria and its neighbours need US help to crush.
“I think we have an interest in combating this group regardless of their connection to ISIL.”