One of the strategies that Boko Haram has pursued in its attempt to overthrow the Nigerian government has been to consciously target and kill civilians. It has bombed churches, attacked schools, kidnapped Western tourists, and assassinated government officials. Three weeks ago, however, it started mass kidnapping girls. The first kidnapping took place at a school in northeastern Nigeria where over 300 girls were abducted while attending school. This week Boko Haram kidnapped girls directly from their village. One can assume they will kidnap more.
The question everyone is asking is why. What purpose could kidnapping young girls serve? And why did Boko Haram decide to do this now?
Boko Haram is kidnapping girls for three reasons. The first has to do with recruitment into their movement. In order to survive, Boko Haram has to increase its support among the local population. Kidnapping school girls provides hard evidence to potential supporters that the group is committed to resisting “Western” influences. This message appeals to citizens who share this ideology, increasing their support. Kidnapping and killing civilians also has the effect of intimidating non-supporters who might otherwise criticize the group or work to undermine it. As Andy Kydd and I argue here, targeting and killing civilian is a form of terrorism that can also be used to intimidate more moderate citizens into submission.
Second, kidnapping girls also serves to deter education. Snatching girls from school is meant to deter families from sending their children to school where they would obtain the education and skills to counter radical Islam. The fewer children in school, the more likel Boko Haram is to succeed.
The chief reason Boko Haram is kidnapping girls, however, has to do with money. Kidnapping and selling girls is one of the few ways a fringe group in an inaccessible area of Nigeria can make money. No one knows for sure how Boko Haram is financing its operation, but my guess is that money is tight and options limited. It took them a while, but they’ve figured out that this strategy might work. Why do I think this is the case? If all Boko Haram wanted to do was deter parents from sending their kids to school, then it would have killed the 200+ girls three weeks ago just like they did with 29 boys back in February. Boko Haram is suddenly targeting girls and kidnapping them because it needs money. There is a market for young girls that does not exist for women or boys or men and Boko Haram is attempting to exploit this.
So what should the West do to counter this new-found strategy? Resist the urge to pay ransoms. Boko Haram will almost certainly prefer to be paid a ransom than the money they would likely receive if they sell them. Yet paying ransoms to have the girls returned would only encourage the organization to increase the kidnappings. This means that the girls who were kidnapped are in a terrible position. There are no incentives for Boko Haram to not to sell them. They will be sold unless their captors can be identified and captured — something that will not be easy to do. The one thing the West can do, however, is to withhold the big money from Boko Haram — the ransoms — that would only serve to incentivize even more kidnappings.