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Here’s why so many people join Boko Haram, despite its notorious violence

- April 26, 2016

Just over two years ago, the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram became infamous worldwide for kidnapping nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, most of whom are still missing today. However, within the Lake Chad Basin region, a region straddling Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon in West Africa, Boko Haram already was widely known for the brutality it had visited on its neighbors.

So why would anyone join?

That’s the question recently investigated by the Nigeria Social Violence Research project at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the Center for Complex Operations, and Mercy Corps.

Many observers have worried about the group’s ideological pull, and by extension, that of other extremist groups. But a careful reading of these reports reveals something simpler and far more specifically local. To be glib, it’s the socioeconomy, stupid. Below you’ll find some background on the group and a summary of the three most notable ways that Boko Haram has recruited.

At first, Boko Haram filled a state vacuum by offering social services and a group identity in a region bereft of both

According to data from the Nigeria Social Violence Project, Boko Haram started as a local, dissident Salafist sect in 2002 in northeast Nigeria. Salafism is an ultraconservative school of thought in Sunni Islam that advocates a strict adherence to the early Islam of the Koran and Sunna. Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s founder, did not necessarily envision the group as a primarily militant group; he ran a farm and even arranged marriages for his members.

Since Nigeria began exporting oil, the government has marginalized its non-oil-producing northeast region economically, pushing it into decline and failing to offer social services like health and education. The difference in development indicators between states in the northeast and in other regions illustrates just how marginalized that region has been. Consider that in Nigeria’s northeast state of Borno, literacy is estimated at just 46 percent for boys and 34 percent for girls — while in the southern state of Imo, the literacy rate is above 98 percent for both boys and girls.

To fill that gap, local groups organized self-help networks along religious or ethnic lines. Boko Haram was one of those groups serving as a kind of para-government, offering help paying the bills; support for the unemployed, widows, and children; and a sense of belonging that filled the gap left by the absent state. By the mid-2000s Boko Haram had expanded its state-like activities into paramilitary incursions, violently attacking other Salafist and Muslim groups that critiqued its interpretation of the Quran.

Those parallel lines of paranational activity – social services combined with violence against what it envisioned as competing groups — continued until 2009. That’s when Nigeria cracked down on on the group’s escalating violence, killing more than 700 suspected Boko Haram members. Since then, Boko Haram has become even more aggressive in its insurgency, treating the Nigerian government as illegitimate and violently expanding its own territory.

Yes, Boko Haram does recruit by force

A significant proportion of the members of Boko Haram were kidnapped into the group. Once abducted, young men and women are subjected to propagandistic preaching, described as “Koranic education” by the insurgents, that asserts that anyone outside of the movement is foolish and acting against God. Abduction and indoctrination have been effective tools for the group.

Boko Haram also offers loans and entrepreneurial assistance …

But despite the violence directed outward, Boko Haram has continued functioning as a kind of state within its region. As Mercy Corps has documented, people in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin have turned to Boko Haram for help. Mercy Corps documented a number of instances in which aspiring and fledgling entrepreneurs accepted loans and capital from Boko Haram. According to the report, Boko Haram has recruited by exploiting “common desires of youth in this region, to get ahead economically and distinguish themselves in their communities.”

… and arranges for young men to have wives

On my own recent research trip, supported by the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations, I found that the region’s economic difficulties altered the communities’ ‘marriage markets,’ making it financially difficult for young men to marry. Anthropological research in the 1960s noted that men in the region’s Kanuri communities “lower their social status by not being married due to their need to eat at the houses of neighbors, friends, relatives, or superiors who have wives.”

Boko Haram fills that need as well, supplying wives to loyal Boko Haram soldiers. One displaced woman in Maiduguri told me that Boko Haram appeals to some young men because they “can take a wife at no extra charge. Usually it is very expensive to take a wife, very hard to get married, but not now.”

In some Boko Haram’s cells, the marriage process is surprisingly intricate. In a number of instances, women who had been taken as “wives” by Boko Haram recalled that their father had been given a “bride price” and that the marriage ceremony had been a public affair within Boko Haram’s camps, where “soldiers sang and celebrated as if it were a normal wedding.”

In many instances, the women must undergo a certain amount of “Koranic education” by the sect before being eligible to be married. Some women reported that this took as long as six months. From a woman’s point of view, Boko Haram kidnaps and systematically sexually assaults women and girls. But it’s done in a way that’s formalized and, superficially, legitimate — satisfying the desire of many of the region’s young men to have wives and the social status that accompanies marriage.

All politics is local

In other words, Boko Haram isn’t just a violent scourge. It attracts members because it offers a kind of normalcy in a region effectively abandoned by the state, including commerce, marriage, social services, identity, and belonging.

All politics, including that of violent extremism, is indeed local.

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst with the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University and a researcher with the Nigeria Social Violence Project. Follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.