Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Rise of the Supranational State

By Blake MichaelPublished February 20, 2015

The rise of Boko Haram and ISIS, coupled with the subsequent failure of the international community to successfully maintain recognized borders, has ushered in an era of quasi-supranational states. The ability of these groups to secure territory within multiple states and create a system of governance has demonstrated the inability of international law to respond to independent militant forces with control of areas in which internationally recognized governments no longer have a monopoly on violence.
By Blake Michael, 02/20/15

Over the weekend, a series of Jordanian bombing raids led to the death of hundreds of militants across the huge swath of territory in Syria and Iraq currently under militant occupation. Concurrently, Boko Haram expanded its efforts to establish a state governed by Shia law into Cameroon and Niger. Separated by 7,000 kilometers, these conflicts demonstrate the increasing irrelevance of borders in the fight against radical Islam.

ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was born in the chaos of the Syrian Civil War. As moderate groups became increasingly scrutinized for failing to gain sufficient international support in their struggle against the al-Assad regime, many fighters found themselves drawn to the far more violent radical group, one whose affinity for savagery would cause them to be publically denounced by Al-Qaeda for being too violent. This group, which would come to be known as ISIS, took advantage of growing anti-Shi'ite sentiment among Sunni tribes in Northern Iraq to invade, carving out a self-proclaimed Caliphate which stretched from Northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad. Within the past few weeks, the beheading of international citizens has led to the formation of a coalition against ISIS, with President Obama expected to ask for Congressional authorization for the use of force in ISIS-held territory this week and a furious Jordan seeking revenge for the burning alive of a soldier captured during an air raid. ISIS expansion into Libya has widened the scope of the war, with recent beheadings of Egyptian Copts in pulling Egypt into the war.

Perhaps less well known but equally as vicious, Boko Haram has flourished in Muslim-dominated North East Nigeria where it seeks to take advantage of political dissatisfaction to carve out a hyper-orthodox Islamic State. In attacks which are feared to cause more than 2000 deaths, the hit-and-run war tactics of the terrorist organization have given rise to a kind of total war which respects no international boundaries. Car bombings and slave-raids have become all the more common, with an estimated three million affected by the ongoing violence. At present, three Northeastern Nigerian states are in a state of emergency as the group's power expands.

While the similarities between the ideological foundations of both groups are relatively clear, what is all the more terrifying is their shared interest in sexual slavery. A statement from ISIS released in December declared sexual subjugation of non-believing women to be within the confines of Islam. Similarly, hundreds of girls have been abducted across Nigeria as Boko Haram enlarges its slave trade. International condemnation has been swift, but a response powerful enough to end the crisis has yet to be enacted.

The surprising success of both terrorist groups in establishing and protecting such a large swath of land has caused a global outpouring of radical support, with dozens of terror cells being identified across Europe in the weeks following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France. ISIS now boasts between twenty and thirty thousand troops with as many as fifteen thousand foreign fighters having arrived to fight for the Islamic State. Boko Haram has fewer fighters from outside of West Africa, but has either forced or enticed between twenty and fifty thousand men from across the region to join. 

In short, these groups have managed to carve out semi-independent states within the borders of existing states whose governments have been unable or unwilling to fully respond. Both the Iraqi and the Nigerian governments have been accused of reacting insufficiently to these territorial incursions, with conquered areas typically belonging to groups within the governing minority. The failure of the international community to enforce established borders will have far reaching consequences in a globalized era, with an increasingly interconnected world offering more opportunities for transnational nightmares.