Nigeria: Boko Haram - What's in a Message?
Initially, messaging primarily took the form of direct interviews by appointed spokesmen with local journalists, flyers distributed to select communities and rambling statements from leader Abubakar Shekau. This stands in stark contrast to the more recent high-quality video productions, often including coverage of attacks, primarily distributed via social media.
The most dramatic and rapid changes along these lines occurred in the lead-up to, and after, Shekau's public allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. Shekau almost completely disappeared from messaging, a major change from previous years.
Appearing in just two audio clips after the pledge, his absence - probably in adherence to Islamic State standards emphasising messaging from rank-and-file members instead of group leaders - was a striking representation of the external influence and coordination present in messaging during this stage.
This has been confirmed by Shekau's reappearances in video messaging since his August 2016 split from the Islamic State-backed faction of the movement, ostensibly once he was freed from the restrictions limiting his public presence.
While messaging has been an important aspect of Boko Haram's outreach and communication, determining the intended audience has not always been clear. Initial messages were conducted primarily in Hausa, indicating a local Nigerian, and at best regional, audience.
By 2015, nearly 90% of productions contained messaging in Arabic, signalling a more globalised outreach. Messaging in English has occurred but not as consistently, while other languages like Kanuri, Fulfulde and French have been used only occasionally.
Notably, however, the last two videos from Shekau's faction, published over the past month, have contained snippets of both French and Kanuri.
Dissemination techniques have also broadened Boko Haram's overall audience. As the graphic below shows, by 2015 the group relied almost exclusively on social media to disseminate its propaganda (primarily Twitter, Telegram and YouTube). This further extended its reach.
Given the continued use of Hausa and messaging content that focuses on local dynamics, however, it is likely that Boko Haram's intended audience has been broadened, rather than supplanted, by these shifting dynamics.
While the impact of Boko Haram's messaging is uncertain, the group's continuing emphasis on disseminating its narrative publicly indicates that it must benefit them somehow.
Recruitment is ostensibly one reason to conduct such public awareness, and a key conclusion of the ISS report is that further research should be undertaken to investigate the links between Boko Haram messaging and prospective recruitment into the group.
Overall, Boko Haram messaging provides a window into a group that otherwise remains largely enigmatic and obscure. Messaging can expose important insights beyond simply serving as a propaganda tool. It should be closely monitored to track the strategy and drivers of violence behind this little-understood group.