The Boko Haram Bidding War

While the world mobilizes to do everything possible to #BringBackOurGirls, let’s recognize that the ransom price will be very high indeed.

05.10.14 9:45 AM ET

Almost lost in the international furor over the schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria (and the political furor in Washington over the Obama administration’s hesitance in years past to call the terrorists who abducted them, well, “terrorists”) one fundamental question is asked far too infrequently. What will it take, in fact, to set those girls free?

There really is only one answer, deeply unsatisfactory and grossly unsavory as that may be: negotiation with Boko Haram and, almost certainly, the payment of a significant ransom.

This may not have been the original intention of the group’s leader, Abubaku Shekau, when he ordered the savage raid on a dormitory full of girls in their mid-teens studying for exams on April 14.  More likely, he was looking to reward the young men fighting under his banner with slave wives. But by the beginning of last week he was canny enough to realize the publicity around this atrocity had given him a new opportunity to make big money.

Shekau has taken Western hostages before and reportedly reaped major revenue. Last year, his men abducted a French family of seven, four of them children between the ages of 5 and 12, who had gone to visit a national park in Cameroon near the Nigerian border. Although officially no ransom was paid by the French government or the victims’ relatives, several reports claim third parties turned over more than $3 million to win the release of the natural-gas company manager Tanguy Moulin-Fournier and his family.

In Shekau’s now-infamous video recorded on May 4, he explicitly put his new Nigerian captives on the block. Abbreviated quotations make it sound as if he’s just talking about making them slaves. In context, it’s clear he is talking about ransom.

“I am the one that captured your girls and I will sell them in the market,” said Shekau, according to one of the more complete English-language transcripts of his remarks published on African websites. “I have my own market of selling people; it is the owner [God] that instructed me to sell.” Shekau’s idea now is to fill his war chest: “Yes, I will sell the girls [to] people, I am selling the girls like Allah said, until we soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels’ blood….”

This is a strategy, moreover, that is commonplace throughout the wide swath of territory stretching across the African continent, into Arabia and South Asia, where different groups that are, or claim to be, or want to be associated with al Qaeda have raised tens of millions of dollars, or more, by taking hostages. And if there is any doubt about where Shekau looks for inspiration and alliances, he laid that to rest. “Our own people are those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Mali,” he said.

When the Moulin-Fournier family was kidnapped in Cameroon last year, Nigerian Boko Haram explicitly stated its motive as retaliation for France’s intervention to prevent a jihadist takeover in Mali. Nor is there much question, now, that Shekau wants to expand his operations, his impact and his reputation far beyond the remote wastes of northeastern Nigeria.

“I am not Boko Haram, I am Jamaatu Allus sunna lil daawati wal Jihad [People committed to the Prophet’s teachings and jihad]. I don’t care what you call me, you are in trouble,” he said in a riff that mocked not only U.S. President Barack Obama, but Abraham Lincoln. “I am against government of the people by the people,” said Shekau. “I am for government of the people by Allah.”

The American, British, French, and other operatives that have now been sent into Nigeria are keeping very quiet about what they are doing and how they intend to do it. But more than three weeks after the kidnapping, it’s assumed that the estimated 223 girls who remain under Boko Haram control are now divided into small and scattered groups. Any military operation to free a few would endanger the many.

The key to any negotiations, according to Giandomenico Picco, who managed to win the freedom of more than a hundred hostages in his long career as a United Nations troubleshooter, is to develop a deep understanding of the man or men who hold them. “This is not a thing that can be done between governments,” says Picco, whose most recent book is The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution. “You have to find someone who can get you inside the personal narrative of the people you’re dealing with.” In this case, Picco suggested the first stop should be the Saudi intelligence services, which have compiled detailed dossiers on radical Sunni organizations.

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“I would say to the Saudis, ‘Show me what you know about this idiot—not politically—personally. Where was this guy born, what do we know about him as a little boy. All this is relevant,” Picco told The Daily Beast. “I would say to the Saudis, ‘Do you want Sunnis to be humiliated by these people?’”

(A few hours after Picco talked to the Beast, perhaps coincidentally, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti condemned the kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria and called Boko Haram a group “set up to smear the image of Islam.”)

Global attention and anger about the kidnapping, after a slow start, is now reaching a thunderous crescendo. But as the furor subsides and the thunder dies, most or all of those girls probably will remain captives. The real work of winning their freedom is going to require a great deal of time, patience, understanding, and money.

And here’s the really unsettling thought. Who will bankroll Shekau’s ambition to project himself on the global stage? Very probably the same people who win the freedom of those poor young girls.