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Boko Haram Turns Robin Hood’s Strategy on Its Head

Forget oil or gold. West Africa’s most dangerous terrorist group is funding its rampages by ignoring the rich and targeting the poor.

Chibok school girls who escaped from the Boko Haram Islamists gather to receive informations from officials on May 5, 2014. Nigeria's president said on May 8 that Boko Haram's mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, as world powers joined the search to rescue the hostages. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

As a convoy of trucks carrying smoked fish cruised along the border of Niger and Nigeria last week, a Nigerien Air Force plane swooped low and opened fire, destroying the trucks and forcing the drivers to flee into Nigeria on foot.

The ill-fated fishmongers, Nigerien officials said, were collaborating with Boko Haram to sell their goods in Nigeria, despite Niger’s recent ban on cross-border fish trades. (Residents of Niger are called Nigerien; those from Nigeria are known as Nigerian). According to the Nigerien government, Boko Haram taxes goods transported through the territory the group controls to add to its cash reserves and finance terrorism, and the recent ban is intended to choke the Islamist group’s resources.

This alleged collaboration between rural fish traders and members of Boko Haram sheds some light on the group’s murky funding tactics, which differ sharply from those of other terrorist groups. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has profited from illicit oil sales and bank lootings. Al Qaeda weaved an intricate financial web of sympathetic mosques, fake charities, and drug sales. In Afghanistan, the Taliban taxes opium and raisins. But in the largely impoverished Lake Chad basin, Boko Haram is now raising money by ignoring the rich and targeting the poor, an unusually cruel tactic that takes struggling innocents and pushes them over the financial cliff.

A senior official at the Nigerien Embassy in Washington told Foreign Policy that members of Boko Haram recently kidnapped a farmer’s three children from the Nigerien town of Diffa and then demanded around $4,000 for their safe return. The farmer sold his cows and emptied his bank accounts to get his children back, leaving his family with no means of income or financial reserves to use in an emergency. Boko Haram pocketed far less than the some $3 million it reportedly negotiated for the safe return of a French family that the group kidnapped from northern Cameroon in 2013, but managed to grab needed resources — and further terrify locals out of cooperating against the group — while avoiding international attention.

“When they kidnap a person from a poor family, they make a trade, maybe for some animals,” the embassy official told FP. “When you steal a farmer’s children, you will get whatever they have.”

Boko Haram has carved out a mass of territory in northeastern Nigeria and parts of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger since it launched its offensive in 2009. Although the group was once confined to Nigeria, its strength and scope of influence were underestimated by the Nigerian government, which didn’t order a sustained crackdown until it was far too late. The group has displaced an estimated 1.5 million people, has killed almost 20,000 in recent years, and burst into Western consciousness last year when it kidnapped more than 200 high school girls. Despite a new multinational force of 8,700 African troops, police, and civilians created to counter the group, many experts estimate it still controls an area around the size of Belgium, where it tries to enforce sharia law.

Nigeria is one of the world’s richest petrostates, but — unlike the Islamic State — Boko Haram has no known way of profiting from oil. The senior official at the Nigerien Embassy said Boko Haram was instead relying heavily on taxing tradable goods, robbing banks, looting the villages it attacks, and kidnapping locals to extort their families for whatever small sum of money the group can get. In a region where most of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, that’s often not much.

Boko Haram has at various times maintained links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), terrorist groups in Somalia, and even the Afghan Taliban. That flow of money and equipment is particularly dangerous for the United States and its allies because it could dramatically increase Boko Haram’s international reach from the area surrounding Lake Chad to other unstable African countries nearby.

Last June, J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, testified before members of the U.S. Congress about the rising threat of Boko Haram. He pointed to a 2010 Al Jazeera interview with the emir of AQIM, based in North Africa, who at the time promised that AQIM would provide funding to the Nigerian extremists. And, Pham said, there is enough evidence in Boko Haram’s growth in lethality and sophistication to back up the widespread belief that the two groups are linked. But, he said, though the group has “expanded its links with al Qaeda affiliates,” Boko Haram remains less an affiliate and more a “friend of a friend” to AQIM and other terrorist groups, including al-Shabab in Somalia.

After the French invasion of Mali in 2013, trade routes between AQIM and Boko Haram were largely cut off. Today, Pham told FP, it’s likely that Boko Haram has a significant amount of money stashed in its reserves, but financially is operating almost entirely independently.

And while the world was focusing on the more than 200 schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped 11 months ago, Pham said it largely ignored the middle-class hostages the group held for ransoms ranging from $10 to $20,000.

“They’re clever people, and they’ve hit their sweet spot,” Pham said. “If you go for someone really high value, you’re going to run across security, but if you kidnap a doctor or lawyer, you won’t have the same international reaction.”

Because the cost of survival is so low in the regions where Boko Haram operates, the militants can live on “just pennies a day,” Pham said.

Prior to the trade ban imposed by Niger, collaborating with fish sellers, herdsmen, and other traders allowed Boko Haram to make a profit and travel safely in their convoys. But now that the trade has been banned, some experts worry that civilian traders targeted by the government’s offensive against the group have been left with few options for survival.

E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, said his organization has heard credible reports from herders, fishermen, and farmers about taxes Boko Haram imposes at various trade checkpoints.

“If you live in those areas, you have three choices: You can flee, leaving everything you’ve built up behind; you can choose to pay the extortionate fees that Boko Haram militants impose; or you can die,” he said.

So when locals like the fishmongers bombed on the Niger-Nigeria border last week are left with the choice of collaborating with Boko Haram or losing their livelihood, it’s no surprise they would prefer the former.

“Not having the ability to fish or to trade for a couple weeks can really push them over the edge from hunger into something much worse,” Hogendoorn said.

Since Niger’s ban on the trade early last week, northern Nigeria has faced a growing fish shortage, which has in turn led to dramatically inflated fish prices. According to Agence France-Presse, hundreds of trucks full of dried fish have been detained on the Niger-Nigeria border, worrying local fishermen that their goods will be destroyed.

The Nigerien Embassy official said that cutting off funding to the group is crucial to its defeat, but that in his opinion, a military mission is only a small part of the solution. The group, he said, can no longer be considered only a religious movement, but a political and social one as well.

In the area Boko Haram controls, he said, youth are disillusioned, uneducated, and desperately poor. So while a Nigerien military operation might push some of the extremists back over the border into Nigeria, it won’t solve the economic crisis that pushed so many to join the group in the first place.

“This is our family; these are our brothers and sons,” the embassy official said. “Before we go and kill them, we need to ask what is wrong now, what can we do to help.”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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