Peter Knoope, a career diplomat who was inter alia Head of Mission to Afghanistan and headed the Humanitarian Aid section at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT).
The outfit generally known as Boko Haram, that operates in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, is counted amongst the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world. In Nigeria alone, tens of thousands of people were killed since 2009, and the killings have caused the displacement of more than two million others.
According to data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, out of the 20 most fatal terrorist attacks committed in 2014, nine have been claimed by, or attributed to, Boko Haram, with an average of 14 deaths/terrorist attack. The organization uses a variety of tactics for their attacks, such as suicide attacks, firearms and bombings. But the trademark of Boko Haram is, without a doubt, the gruesome exploitation of abducted girls as suicide bombers.
The level of violence and the cynical use of young girls as disposables are also the reasons why the group has lost much of its public support in the region. The founder of the organization, Mohammed Youssef, originally gained the sympathy of many in northern Nigeria by exploiting the general idea that Western education symbolizes both the history of Christian colonialism and the modern corrupt state. When Youssef died under suspicious circumstances in custody in 2009, public support for rebellion against the government in response, ran high.
Today that is no longer the case. Young people join Boko Haram for a variety of reasons. Lack of alternatives and forced recruitment are amongst them, but the ideological varnish is often thin. The reason why Operation Safe Corridor was established in 2016 by the Nigerian government was to allow those who wanted to escape from Boko Haram to defect and be assisted to return to society.
Even though the organization is extremely violent, it has mostly stayed outside the international spotlight. The only incident that drew widespread international attention was the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram militants attacked a government secondary boarding school in Chibok, in the Borno state, where girls from surrounding areas had gone to take exams. The gunmen arrived in the town late at night in a blaze of gunfire and headed for the school where they raided the dormitories and loaded 276 girls on to lorries.
It led to an international outburst of anger and frustration. Hillary Clinton was amongst the celebrities that addressed the issue on several occasions. Meanwhile, Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, a young female victim of terrorism from Pakistan herself, visited Nigeria to demand their immediate release and later met some of the Chibok schoolgirls after their release. Nigerian mothers openly demonstrated their anger under the banner “Bring Back Our Girls” in opposition to Boko Haram and to push for more action by the government in Abuja.
But international attention subdued. News is volatile. Other issues became front page news. The Charlie Hebdo attack, the ISIS Caliphate, the US elections and the Black Lives Matter campaigns pushed the Chibok girls off front pages. Taking advantage of being out of the spotlight, Boko Haram continued their operations that had already started way before the infamous events in Chibok.
The Northern Nigerians got used to it. For instance, the Nigerian military freed 1,000 women and girls held captive by Boko Haram in the village of Boboshe in January 2016. The Chibok girls were not part of this release. The abductions of women by Boko Haram serve several purposes. The women are not only exploited to be used as suicide bombers. They also serve as sex slaves and servants, preparing food for the men.
Cashing in on Terrorism
The local and international push for the release of the Chibok girls had an unforeseen negative side-effect. There are reports that the government of Nigeria paid €3 million Euro for the release of the Chibok girls that, by then, had become famous around the world. That fame drove the price up. It should not come as a surprise that this sort of money encourages the very modus operandi that it seeks to remedy. High amounts of ransom prove the profitability of the methodology.
This is the very reason why most governments shy away from paying for the release when their citizens are kidnapped. The UK took the lead in this in 2014 by explicitly prohibiting the reimbursement of a payment by an insurance company which they know (or have reasonable cause to suspect) has been made in response to a terrorist demand. The reasoning for this legal measure is that paying ransom is a way of financing terrorism — an illegal act globally.
But initiatives like the UK legislation didn’t stop the practice in Nigeria. On the contrary. Boko Haram continued abductions for a variety of reasons that were already present before the Chibok events. But parallel to this continuation, the profitable business model inspired other, even less ideologically motivated groups, to dive into the market.
According to expert Bulama Bukarti, a senior analyst in the extremism policy unit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, there have been eight mass kidnappings affecting six different states of Nigeria. From December 2020 to August 2021, more than 1,000 students and teachers were taken hostage. In August 2021, three different gangs were holding more than 300 students. By last year it had become big business.
Since August 2021, the situation in Nigeria and in Cameroon has deteriorated rapidly. This is the travel advice you will find online:
“The kidnapping threat is high throughout Nigeria. There is a high incidence of crime in Nigeria, including armed robbery, assault, kidnapping, terrorism, and maritime crime and piracy. The homicide rate is very high in many parts of the country. If, despite our advice, you travel to a high-risk area, get professional security advice and support.”
This is not only the advice given to potential foreign visitors. Also, Nigerians are advised not to travel by road outside Abuja. Kidnapping has become a popular income generating activity in the region. The situation in Cameroon is well described in an ISS report:
“Other groups besides Boko Haram are increasingly kidnapping people, according to research in the North and Far North regions. Perpetrators include former shepherds and criminal gangs comprising Cameroonians, Nigerians, Nigeriens and Chadians. The kidnappers live in the bushes and mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border and team up with local accomplices who act as informants.”
When it comes to the issue of paying the ransom, ISS has found that people are generally reluctant to involve the authorities in finding their relatives. In most cases, they fear their family members will be killed if the government or security forces become involved, so they negotiate privately with the kidnappers. This also leads to a situation in which the authorities no longer have a full picture of events. Lawlessness is the rule of the game.
Organized Criminal Network
The most concerning element, however, is the fact that, in some cases, the operatives of Boko Haram and the copycat criminal gangs are working in close cooperation, splitting cash profits. What started as a terrorist organization has become a hybrid coalition of criminals, gangs, politically motivated individuals, involuntary fighters and thrill seekers. The security apparatus hardly has the proper tools to fight this complex community of mafia lookalikes.
Although Nigeria and Cameroon are at the forefront of this new phenomenon, it is hardly unique. Indications show that it is spreading are all over. Recently high-profile politicians and members of the royal family in the Netherlands were under serious threat, but not from groups that would classically be considered politically motivated terrorists. The threat rather came from the circles around organized crime. The objectives are utterly political, and the modus operandi is highjacked from terrorists. The two worlds merge. Organized crime groups seek to influence political decisions, intimidate and otherwise hinder the work of politicians by using the methods formerly signature to terrorists. Infiltration techniques into decision-making circles do the rest. The security architecture has no adequate responses.
Merging of Worlds
The merging of the two worlds — organized crime and terrorism — is a phenomenon that happens all across Africa and the Middle East. It is even more complicated to deal with when the government is unreliable or corrupt and civil servants are making a profit from the combination of illegal activities, infiltration and intimidation.
This combination in the complex nexus between organized crime, terrorism and corrupt government officials brings new challenges to analytical and policy work. It calls for the urgent need to break classic silos and pillars. It questions the efficiency of the relatively isolated CT architecture. It has consequences for the work of UNOCT, CTED, GCTF and others.
The world has changed. Developments like those in Nigeria where abductions like the Chibok girls by Boko Haram occur are only the first sign of what is to come. Organized crime circles have discovered that terrorism works. We will have to respond quickly, or else criminal gangs are going to dominate our mobility and the security of our physical space — a reality that is already taking shape in Nigeria and Cameroon.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.