Understanding Boko Haram’s Mass Abductions – By Michael Baca
The first anniversary of the Chibok kidnappings served as a grim reminder of Boko Haram’s proclivity toward abducting noncombatants. While comprehensive statistics remain absent, available information suggests Boko Haram has kidnapped/conscripted thousands of civilians over the course of its violent struggle with Abuja. Most of these seizures seem to have occurred since Boko Haram’s evolution in 2013 from a primarily urban-centered guerrilla movement to a largely rural insurgency. The timing is likely not a coincidence. Reports indicate Boko Haram’s relocation to the countryside created recruitment challenges that the group sought to partly address through abductions.
Boko Haram already had an expanding presence in the northeast’s rural hinterlands prior to 2013. Yet the real geographical shift probably began in May of that year, when the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency and proceeded to surge military forces into northeastern cities. In the face of this offensive, many Boko Haram elements seem to have abandoned their urban hideouts and regrouped in the bush. This apparent setback ultimately proved advantageous for Boko Haram. Northeastern Nigeria’s insecure countryside provided an ideal environment for the Salafi-jihadi group to operate in; left largely unmolested by Nigerian security forces, Boko Haram augmented its military capability and eventually captured vast swaths of territory from Abuja.
There was only one problem: by repositioning most of its forces outside of the northeast’s major towns, Boko Haram appears to have cut itself off from its base. Established in the teeming neighborhoods of Maiduguri – northeastern Nigeria’s largest city – Boko Haram had drawn much of its early support from two demographics. The first consisted of individuals from Maiduguri’s burgeoning underclass, while the second featured university students. Many members of these groups had grown disillusioned with the lack of economic opportunities and rampant political corruption. A general breakdown in lineage and communal-based support structures helped to heighten their collective sense of alienation.
Within this context, Boko Haram’s harsh critique of the Nigerian sociopolitical system resonated with many of Maiduguri’s denizens. Further, Boko Haram membership offered disaffected individuals the opportunity to join a social network with purported linkages across northeastern Nigeria and beyond. Abuja’s violent July 2009 crackdown on Boko Haram seems to have further strengthened the appeal of Boko Haram’s revolutionary ideology among certain segments of Maiduguri’s populace. The reported draconian tactics employed by Nigerian security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s 2010 reemergence, which allegedly included extrajudicial killings and mass detentions, simply drove more urban dwellers into the arms of the Salafi-jihadi movement.
In the northeast’s countryside, Boko Haram encountered a far less sympathetic audience. Besides containing a substantial number of Christian and polytheistic communities, rural northeastern Nigeria also possesses a Muslim population that generally adheres to syncretic forms of Islam that incorporate facets of indigenous religions. What is more, rural Muslims likely hold less antagonistic attitudes toward the Nigerian government, due in part to a lack of contact with Abuja’s agents. Traditional institutions – particularly those pertaining to political or religious authority – still wield a degree of influence among many local inhabitants, presenting a conservative bulwark against Islamic radicalization.
Operating among host populations less than receptive to its worldview, Boko Haram faced a choice. The Salafi-jihadi group could either alter its messaging to broaden its rural appeal or seek to entrench itself in the countryside through armed coercion. By electing to pursue the latter option, Boko Haram’s leadership created a new challenge for its movement. Battlefield attrition led to a constant need for fresh recruits, yet Boko Haram’s available manpower pool consisted of few committed activists. Boko Haram likely identified large-scale abductions as one avenue to overcome this challenge.
To attract more volunteers, Boko Haram appears to have increasingly relied on material incentives. Apart from dispensing money and plundered property to its followers, Boko Haram has allegedly distributed women captured during raids on vulnerable settlements. In a region where males usually need some wealth in order to marry, the prospect of obtaining a “wife” must surely prove enticing to many destitute youths who otherwise have little use for Boko Haram’s Islamist message. Militants can also barter their female captives for goods or monetary compensation from local human traffickers.
In addition to utilizing kidnapped women and girls for recruitment efforts, Boko Haram seems to have deployed a number of its female prisoners as suicide bombers. This militarization of abductees has extended to male captives, especially adolescents. Accounts coming out of northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon indicate that a large percentage of Boko Haram’s fighters are now drawn from war captives and conscripts. Although forced to join Boko Haram under duress, these individuals presumably serve the Salafi-jihadi group as reliable foot soldiers reportedly willing to carry out frontal assaults on armed positions.
Boko Haram likely achieves this level of obedience by alienating its prisoners from their natal communities and subsequently socializing them into the Salafi-jihadi group’s rank and file. According to testimonies provided by several deserters, Boko Haram frequently kills its captives’ relatives in front of them, severing their familial ties. Stripped of their social bonds, many prisoners appear to become more vulnerable to Boko Haram’s indoctrination techniques, which seemingly mold them into pliant fighters. Those who risk execution by attempting to escape from Boko Haram’s camps often find themselves ostracized upon their return to territory controlled by Nigeria or its neighbors. Given such bleak prospects, it should not come as a surprise that so many conscripted combatants remain with Boko Haram.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of these individuals will need to be reintegrated into society in the event of a Boko Haram defeat. Failure to do so could create a floating body of disaffected youths bereft of opportunities and susceptible to joining other violent non-state actors. Indeed, this potential security challenge may emerge as one of Boko Haram’s most enduring legacies.
Michael W. Baca is an Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.