Why Kidnap Girls?

Map by the CIA World Facebook.
Map by the CIA World Facebook.

By Barbara F. Walter

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.

  1. Just throwing this out as a possibility. The Americans want to beef up military control over Africa’s resources through the vehicle of ‘Africom’. What better way to get public support in the west than to make sure enough funding manages to reach this Boko Haram group to allow them to commit various outrages? US strategic planning is utterly cynical. They had no moral troubles about fomenting a horrible civil war in Syria by funneling arms and intelligence to vicious psychopaths and religious fanatics. Why would anyone think they’d shed a tear about some Nigerian children?

  2. There is no question that intimidation is a big part of Boko Haram’s over-all strategy. However, I think this has more to do with outbidding than financing. Even if the quoted “$12” (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/editorial/comparing-nigerian-schoolgirls-to-mh370-shows-global-travesty) figure is at the low end, its doubtful these children will be a significant source of income – or at least a more lucrative source than the looting and bank-robbing that has become a big part of their MO since their financier was allegedly executed a few years back (http://www.sundaytrust.com.ng/index.php/news/11671-summary-execution-of-boko-harams-suspected-financier-unacceptable). Moreover, if it was about the money, why not just sell them off and be done with it? Why be so vocal and detailed about their intentions? No, this goes straight to ugly core of gender-based violence in armed conflict. The fate of these girls is “worse than” death and, in Boko Haram’s calculations, a more potent deterrent then simple slaughter. And before we choke this up to some sort of Islamist pre-occupation with viriginity, it is important to remember that they are playing on a fairly universal bogeyman. One of the most persistent arguments against women in combat in the US was “what would happen if they became prisoners of war?” It wasn’t that they could be killed or injured that gave pause, but that they could be violated.

    This intimidation tactic will certainly deter some families from sending their girls (or boys for that matter) to school; but more significantly, it will further undermine the public trust in the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan; who is far from scoring points on the handling of this matter. This attack shines a bright light on the limited reach of state control in Nigeria and their inability to provide even a modicum of security to their population. This is key as the intimidation has been going both ways in the hinterlands, with rumours of mass imprisonment and killings of young men on tenuous suspicions of links or sympathies with Boko Haram. Ratcheting up the pitch could certainly change the calculations of village leaders in more remote areas to make side deals with the insurgents to provide a slightly less flimsy source of protection than the government currently offers.

  3. Useful analysis, though I wonder whether this piece oversells the importance Boko Haram places on eradicating Western education. Though Boko Haram translates roughly to “Western Education is forbidden/sin,” Boko Haram’s leaders have renounced the name as simply a label that Nigerians/Westerners use to describe the group. Moreover, the vast majority of BH’s attacks have nothing to do with schools; they are directed at security forces, etc.

    The money hypothesis seems a better fit, though kidnapping for ransom has traditionally not been part of Boko Haram’s MO (unlike its smaller cousin, Ansaru). Unclear whether this incident represents a shift in strategy, or a one-off.

  4. Reblogged this on Zuri Linetsky and commented:
    This is post at Political Violence@a glance. Barbra Walter is one of the preeminent scholars of civil war and intrastate conflict in the United States, if not the world. Unfortunately her take on Boko Haram, is from my perspective incorrect. Allow me to explain….

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