Boko Haram's tactics are so brutal and senseless that even al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations think the group goes too far. But large operations to kidnap more than 200 schoolgirls and wantonly massacre hundreds of unarmed villagers take more than skewed morals and careful planning — they also take money, in this case truly filthy lucre. And Boko Haram has ample cash in a part of Nigeria and West Africa where money is scarce. Where do they get it?
"Analysts say the actual source of the funding is as elusive as the militants themselves," says Heather Murdock at VOA News. But Boko Haram is clearly getting richer. Its weapons have shifted from relatively cheap AK-47s in the early days of its post-2009 embrace of violence to desert-ready combat vehicles and anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns. Here's a look at what we know, and what we suspect, about the organization's financial support:
Abducting hundreds of schoolgirls, possibly to sell as "brides," is how Boko Haram gained international notoriety. But additionally, "kidnapping has become one of the group's primary funding sources, a way to extract concessions from the Nigerian state and other governments, and a threat to foreigners and Nigerian government officials," says Jacob Zenn at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.
It has been a lucrative source of cash, too. Last year, Boko Haram secured $3 million and the release of 16 prisoners in exchange for a French family of seven it seized in northern Cameroon. The group has claimed credit for a few kidnappings since then, but they are widely suspected of carrying out dozens of other abductions-for-ransom in northern Nigeria, says Zenn. "Virtually all of the kidnapping victims were mid-level officials, or their relatives, who were not wealthy enough to have security details, but could afford modest ransoms of about $10,000."
Along with ransom money, "Boko Haram has partly financed its militant operations by attacking and robbing banks," says David Doukhan at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. The group has robbed hundreds of banks in its home province of Borno and two other northern regions of Nigeria, and nabbed convoys and successful businesses. If that sounds not particularly pious for a fundamentalist religious group, "the robbery is justified by Koranic interpretation that bank robbery is permitted, since the money from the banks is considered 'spoils of war,'" Doukhan adds. Some estimates put Boko Haram's thievery spoils at about $6 million.
Taxes and protection money
Boko Haram has demanded and received protection money from the governors of the northern Nigeria states since 2004, says Taiwo Ogundipe at Nigeria's The Nation, citing an unidentified spokesman for the group and other captured Boko Haram operatives. "The Northern governors are overwhelmed about the strength of the group and are aware of the capabilities of Boko Haram operatives in their respective states," the spokesman said.
That was in 2011. From then until at least mid-2013, Boko Haram was the de facto ruler of large swathes of Nigeria. "It would appear that they have established bases in certain parts of the northeast that nobody can even penetrate or go to, and they’ve excluded every symbol of authority in those areas," Clement Nwankwo, at the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, told VOA News in May 2013. "Some even say they are in control of various local governments in the northeast and are collecting taxes and running the show in those places."
Foreign terrorist organizations
Boko Haram is widely believed to have received funding from regional and international Islamist terrorist organizations, though how much and from which groups is in dispute. The Daily Beast's Eli Lake reports that the group received some early seed money from Osama bin Laden in 2002, through a disciple named Mohammed Ali who bin Laden sent to Africa with $3 million for like-minded militant organizations.
"We are not saying all $3 million went to Boko Haram," the International Crisis Group's E.J. Hogendoorn tells The Daily Beast. "What I can tell you from talking to lots of conservative Muslims in Nigeria is that there was a lot of money coming into northern Nigeria, there are many sources of that money. One of those sources was from al Qaeda."
The group has also reportedly gotten money from Algerian al Qaeda offshoot al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somali group al-Shabab. One motive those groups have is setting up friendly safe havens in the region. "I think there must be some funding coming from extremist groups, coming from some extremist groups who want perhaps to create a base in northern Nigeria," Nwankwo tells VOA News.
Foreign civic groups
There are a handful of non-militant groups accused of shuttling money to Boko Haram, including Britain's Al-Muntada Trust Fund and Saudi Arabia's Islamic World Society. "Monetary practices embedded in Muslim culture, such as donating to charities and informal money-transfer centers, have compounded the difficulty in tracking down terrorist financial links," says David Doukhan at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
While the details of Boko Haram's finances remains nothing if not murky, understanding "funding of Boko Haram is quite a very crucial question," retired army captain and security consultant Aliyu Umar tells VOA News. "If we can get to the bottom of that then we can cut off the source of the funds."
Then there's the reason that may matter in the U.S. The fact that the U.S. didn't formally designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization until last year has become the focus of a partisan attack against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in office when the Obama administration was debating the move. Key to the accusation is the idea that adding the group to America's terrorist list would have made a difference, presumably by restricting funding to Boko Haram. We can't evaluate that charge without knowing where the Nigerian Islamists get their money.