The stage has been set for… [an] al Qaeda resurgence in Nigeria. One potential strategy for the group would involve building up a new pro-al Qaeda jihadi network in Nigeria that is designed to eclipse Boko Haram or pry away its members. To this end, AQIM could try to unite its Fulani members in Mali with Fulanis in Nigeria under a charismatic figure like Amadou Koufa, the leader of the Massina Liberation Front, an AQIM-created Malian faction that counts many West African Fulanis among its ranks. This could achieve a unified AQIM framework that stretches from Mali to Nigeria, allowing the group to exploit the grievances of Muslim Fulani herdsman, who have long felt abandoned and exploited by the governments of both countries.
Al Qaeda might also choose to negotiate directly with the leaders of friendly Boko Haram elements like the splinter group Ansaru, which could serve as a vehicle for sparking mass defections from Boko Haram. Although the top Ansaru commander, Khalid al-Barnawi, was arrested earlier this year, there are still key figures within the splinter group who maintain high-level contacts with AQIM and al-Shabaab, such as Mamman Nur, who masterminded the 2011 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. The task of prying away Boko Haram’s foot soldiers might be made easier by Shekau’s alleged flight to Libya, together with a key cadre of Islamic State loyalists, after facing increased pressure from the Nigerian-led regional military coalition.
Should Boko Haram ultimately turn its back on the Islamic State, it would send an enormous shockwave through the global jihadi movement. The Nigerian militant group is by far the highest-profile organization to leave an existing terrorist network to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. If it were to suddenly cut ties with the Iraq- and Syria-based caliphate, it would send a powerful message to other al Qaeda affiliates toying with the idea of Islamic State membership: Baghdadi’s caliphate is a dying brand. But as brutal as it is, the Islamic State’s implosion would not herald an overall diminishment of the global jihadi threat. On the contrary, it would underscore that an even thornier problem remains: Al Qaeda, during its time under the radar, has become an even more formidable foe.