Hot Issue: Boko Haram’s Mass-Kidnapping in Chibok: Shekau’s Gains and Objectives

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

Executive Summary

On May 12, 2013, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, demanded in a video that all Boko Haram prisoners, which number in the hundreds in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger, be released before he orders the return of more than 250 girls kidnapped in April. However, the May 12 video – which shows more than 100 of the girls in Islamic dress after many were forcibly converted to Islam – was likely filmed the day that the girls were kidnapped on April 15. By now, Boko Haram likely has dispersed the girls throughout Cameroon, Chad and, according to the latest reports, also Central African Republic (CAR) almost to the Sudanese border. Boko Haram could not have carried out this cross-border kidnapping without the support of Ansaru, an offshoot militant group who are experts in propaganda, kidnappings-for-ransom and prisoner exchanges and who would have connections to Islamists in Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and possibly the leaders of Séléka in CAR.

The days of Boko Haram as a “local insurgency” are over. The announcement on May 14 of an Interpol warrant for a British citizen now based in Sudan who masterminded a recent bombing in Abuja that killed nearly 100 people is the latest example of Boko Haram’s reach in Africa and beyond. The following Hot Issue provides more analysis on Boko Haram’s rationale for kidnapping the 250 girls in Nigeria, what Boko Haram may gain from this kidnapping and how the operation, publicity and internationalization of the insurgency will impact Boko Haram’s trajectory. The author’s view is that the chief motivation for kidnapping these schoolgirls is to use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Nigerian government for the release of imprisoned Boko Haram militants.

Boko Haram’s War Goes Global

Abubakar Shekau, a likely nom de guerre, made international headlines on May 4, when he announced in a video he would “sell” more than 250 schoolgirls that Boko Haram kidnapped from the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria as “slaves in the market” (Daily Trust [Abuja], May 4). Though Shekau is often dismissed as a “madman” in Nigerian – and now international – press, under his leadership Boko Haram is carrying out attacks consistent with the ideology of Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf even before Shekau declared that “jihad has begun… Oh, America, die in your fury” in 2010. [1] Boko Haram may also be advancing towards realizing the plans Yusuf and Shekau had for the Islamization of Nigeria before Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf in 2009 and Shekau announced that he “as Yusuf’s deputy assumed leadership" of Boko Haram (Vanguard [Lagos], September 3, 2011).

Yusuf’s and Shekau’s plan was to carve out an Islamic state or enclave, in a part of northeastern Nigeria and leverage it for two purposes: first, to pressure Abuja to submit to the religious and political agenda of Boko Haram and their Islamist sponsors in northern Nigeria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia; and, second, to expand the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s doctrine in sub-Saharan Africa and attack U.S. economic interests specifically in southern Nigeria (Punch, April 12; The Guardian, April 29, 2012). To achieve these objectives and win supporters, Yusuf and Shekau condemned the Nigerian government and the security forces for corruption and moral impropriety and labeled Nigeria’s Muslim religious leaders as “apostates” for allowing Shari’a, which was adopted in 12 northern Nigerian states starting in 2000, to be mixed with “impure” Western concepts of democracy and secularism. Boko Haram’s arguments resonated with under-employed but educated people in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon as well as uneducated al-majiri (madrassah) students in the region. [2] Yusuf also dispatched followers to countries ranging from Algeria to Pakistan to receive training, funding and advice from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other militant groups to prepare for what Yusuf believed was an inevitable confrontation with the Nigerian State (IRIN, January 25, 2004; BBC, September 2, 2009; Punch, February 14, 2013). [3]

Boko Haram’s kidnapping in Chibok is a case study in how Abubakar Shekau leads his jihad against the Nigerian state now almost five years after the security forces killed Yusuf in July 2009.

Chibok Kidnapping in Perspective

The Chibok kidnapping on April 14 and the raid that killed about 300 villagers in Gambarou-Ngala on May 7 put Boko Haram on the front pages of the international media for the first time. This likely came as a surprise to Boko Haram because it has been carrying out these types of massacres and kidnappings since late 2011 (Vanguard [Lagos], May 7). On January 20, 2012, Shekau ordered an assault on government buildings and churches in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city, which killed nearly 200 Muslim civilians as collateral damage and led to the formation in Kano of a then rival faction, Ansaru (Vanguard [Lagos], January 26, 2012). Ansaru saw itself as an alternative to Boko Haram that would focus on kidnapping foreigners and attacking Christian churches while avoiding killing Muslim civilians (Desert Herald [Kaduna], June 5, 2012).

On May 7, 2013, Boko Haram attacked the town of Bama on Nigeria’s border with Chad and killed 55 people, including dozens as collateral damage in shoot-outs with security forces, while looting vehicles and property, destroying government buildings and kidnapping 12 wives and daughters of security officers (Daily Trust [Abuja], May 8, 2013). Shekau appeared on May 13, 2013 in a split-screen video with these 12 women and warned that they would become his “slaves” if the Nigerian security forces “do not release [Boko Haram’s] wives and children,” including those of Shekau and several sub-commanders (AFP, May 13, 2013). On May 24, 2013, the Nigerian government released 90 Boko Haram members, including family members of militants, from prison, and also reportedly paid a ransom to Boko Haram (This Day [Lagos], May 25, 2013). Throughout the rest of 2013, Boko Haram accelerated kidnapping-for-ransom operations in northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon, targeting mid-level government officials, foreign tourists and priests. Boko Haram coordinated these operations with some Ansaru militants, who previously carried out kidnappings with AQIM in the Sahel but returned to Boko Haram’s fold under Shekau (Vanguard [Lagos], November 15, 2013).

By the end of 2013, a precedent was set: Boko Haram kidnapping-for-ransom operations could far surpass bank robberies as the militant group’s most lucrative local funding source. Hostage exchanges, similarly, could lead to the release from prison of Boko Haram militants and their family members, the latter of whom were often jailed without any suspicion of involvement in militant activities.

What Shekau Gains

Boko Haram now controls the fate of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls from Chibok, many of whom are believed to be with militants in the swamplands near Lake Chad in Chad and Cameroon, despite the latter’s denials that any of the girls have crossed its borders (Daily Trust [Abuja], April 29). This will increase Shekau’s bargaining power to pressure the Nigerian government to pay ransom money – as Shekau always demands in hostage negotiations – in the tens of thousands of dollars for the girls. He likely will also negotiate for the release of dozens, if not hundreds, of Boko Haram members imprisoned in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon (L’Oeil du Sahel [Yaounde] May 8). In two classical Arabic-language interludes in Shekau’s mostly Hausa and pidgin English video on May 5, he justified his actions by quoting Qur’anic Surah 47:4, which, according to some interpretations, permits Muslims to accept ransom or prisoner exchanges for “infidel” hostages. [4]

Unlike previous Boko Haram attacks, the international pressure on Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is growing because of the #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign. Protests are increasing due to the government’s indifference to the plight of the schoolgirls and statements in support of the schoolgirls from foreign and domestic leaders. This pressure came at the same time that the World Economic Forum took place in Abuja on May 7, 2014, and the Nigerian presidential campaign for the February 2015 elections is picking up pace. If this pressure continues to mount, Jonathan and his political team or the military may seek to resolve the kidnapping issue – with at least some of the girls being released – and reduce its media presence to prevent the story from undermining Jonathan’s likely re-election bid or tarring Nigeria’s credibility. For example, on May 12 the government reportedly denied the minister of interior’s statement that the government would “not negotiate” with Boko Haram (The Eagle, May 12).

It is unlikely that Boko Haram will ‘sell’ many of the schoolgirls into international human trafficking markets. The girls have greater utility for Boko Haram as a bargaining chip with the Nigerian government. Shekau’s former spokesman, Abu Qaqa, foresaw this type of situation when he said the Nigerian government would ultimately be “brought to its knees” in negotiations with Boko Haram in an interview he gave in 2012 (The Guardian, January 27, 2012). Moreover, the release of Boko Haram members from prison in exchange for the girls may increase the freed militants’ loyalty to Shekau and his inner circle and bolster his leadership position like in previous prison break operations and hostage exchanges. Boko Haram’s first attack under Shekau was in September 2010 at Bauchi prison where Abu Qaqa, notably, was one of the 700 prisoners freed (Leadership [Abuja], September 8, 2013). 

Even if Boko Haram names an official negotiator for the hostages, it is likely there will also be back-channel negotiators, such as tribal elders in northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. These elders will likely take a significant cut of any money given to Boko Haram for the kidnapped girls. This will boost their allegiance – or at least, compliance – with Boko Haram (VOA, March 25). The tribal elders and their community members may justify these kidnapping-for-ransom exchanges as part of the Nigerian-Cameroon “terrorism economy,” where taking money from the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments, which the elders believe do not fairly distribute their countries’ oil wealth, is considered tolerable or as a necessary evil. [5]

Even if there is no prisoner exchange or ransom paid for the girls, Shekau may still carry out his threat and distribute the girls to his fighters as ‘rewards’ – essentially as sex slaves. His fighters may also simply rape the girls, as has happened in numerous other wars. Shekau employs the religious justification from Qur’anic Surah al-Anfaal 41, which he has cited in sermons with his foot soldiers in what appears to be Borno state’s Sambisa Forest. [6] He implies in the video that taking schoolgirls like the ones in Chibok as ghanima (spoils of war) is acceptable because the girls are “infidels” and enemies in Boko Haram’s “jihad.” [7] While the Christian girls are de facto “infidels,” Muslim girls are also “infidels” according to Boko Haram because they receive Western education, have not married by their teenage years and do not pay jizyah (tax for protection). According to Boko Haram’s interpretation of Qur’anic Surah 9:29 “infidels” must pay jizyah to their Muslim rulers in the Islamic state Boko Haram is carving out of northeastern Nigeria. [8]

Finally, Boko Haram may use the girls as human shields in case the Nigerian Air Force (or foreign drones) target militant camps. [9] The 500-militant attack on Maiduguri Air Base in Borno state in December 2013, which Shekau claimed credit for in a video showing exclusive Boko Haram-filmed footage of militants destroying several warplanes, attests to the organization’s interest in neutralizing the air superiority of conventional armed forces (AFP, December 12, 2013; Daily Trust [Abuja], December 13, 2013).

Ansaru and al-Qaeda’s Role

The ease with which Boko Haram carried out the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok and Shekau’s religious justifications for the operation suggests that Boko Haram is steadily establishing control of territory for the establishment of his envisioned Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria. The financial and other benefits some tribal leaders and foot soldiers acquire from cooperating with the group may provide sufficient local support for Boko Haram to maintain hideouts in the Nigeria-Cameroon border region among the population. At present, Nigerian security forces and other government officials are effectively absent from swathes of territory in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state, which likely contributes to Shekau’s sense of control of territory and may enable him to convince his fighters that the conditions have been met to justify the establishment of an Islamic state.

Shekau, however, has thus far not pronounced such a state and Boko Haram has completely eschewed establishing the unpopular type of Shari’a administrative and bureaucratic structures that AQIM established in northern Mali in 2012 and 2013 and that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established in Zinjibar, Yemen in 2011. In addition, al-Qaeda has not recognized Boko Haram as an affiliate or shown support for its Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria. Al-Qaeda is already troubled by the mass killings of Muslim civilians by the renegade former al-Qaeda affiliate, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose late leader, Omar al-Baghdadi, Shekau praised in several videos. [10] Affiliating with Boko Haram, whose violence towards Muslims is likely even greater than ISIS, could become a liability for al-Qaeda’s “brand.”

Ansaru may also have advised Shekau against establishing an Islamic state because the group’s militants who communicate with AQIM and AQAP are likely aware of the “lessons learned” from the failures of the short-lived Islamic states in northern Mali and Yemen, and have been with Shekau in northeastern Nigeria. [11] Nonetheless, Boko Haram is largely locally funded (especially through the kidnappings-for-ransom with Ansaru) and recruits almost exclusively from the local population in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. It does not need any formal al-Qaeda support to continue the insurgency.

Meanwhile, Ansaru has not claimed responsibility for any attacks for more than one year. Its leaders are likely following the directives of AQIM (and Bin Laden before his death in 2011) to Ansaru’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel, to maintain a “low profile” and not draw the international attention that recognition as an al-Qaeda affiliate would command (AP, February 14, 2013). Boko Haram’s kidnappings in Chibok have brought this unwanted attention from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, China and other countries, but it could have come too late since both groups have already acquired anti-aircraft missiles, at least one armored personnel carrier and other heavy weapons. The addition of this heavy weaponry may be sufficient to frustrate any military campaign against them even with significant outside support for Nigeria (Punch, September 27, 2013). As a result, specifically targeting Boko Haram and Ansaru leaders and masterminds with special forces operations may be the most effective approach militarily to deal with Boko Haram.

The two separate bomb blasts in a motor park outside of Abuja on April 15 and May 1, however, which killed about 100 people and 20 people, according to initial reports, likely indicate Boko Haram’s and Ansaru’s continuing ties to militant groups outside Nigeria, such as al-Shabaab and AQIM (This Day [Lagos], April 16). The Interpol warrant for a British citizen in Sudan, Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, in connection with these attacks is further evidence of international ties to the militancy in Nigeria (Vanguard [Lagos], May 14). Similarly, the other major bombings in Abuja in recent years, such as the Federal Police Headquarters and UN Headquarters suicide bombings in Abuja in 2011, were carried out by Nigerian militants in coordination with AQIM and al-Shabab (Vanguard [Lagos], September 4, 2011).


With Boko Haram’s strong position in northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon and with Ansaru active elsewhere in Nigeria and neighboring countries, the Nigerian Army may soon engage in critical operations against these groups in coming months. At the same time, the war against Boko Haram and Ansaru cannot be fought with guns alone. Shekau’s extremist religious justifications for the group’s attacks thus far have not discredited Boko Haram among its sympathizers, particularly in the border region, but there have also been few coordinated campaigns to counter Shekau’s rhetoric. 

Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria may be able to play a key role in generating counter-narratives to Shekau on the grounds that his religious interpretations are incorrect. In the event that Shekau’s religious credibility is still compelling to Boko Haram followers, then such religious leaders can argue from the Islamic principle that Boko Haram’s means – violating all moral precepts and kidnapping more than 250 teenage girls and killings dozens of innocent people in Abuja – do not justify the ends of creating an Islamic state, no matter how appealing the idea of such a state may be to Boko Haram’s sympathizers.

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation and author of “Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy.” He speaks Arabic and French and carried out field research in northeastern Nigeria’s borderlands, Mali and Mauritania in three trips from 2012 to 2014.


1. Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum, July 11, 2010; See also International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (IDC Heziliya), Periodical Review July 2010 – No. 2 (August 2010).

2. Shaykh Muhammad Yusuf, ‘Tarihin Musulmai (History of Muslims)’, YouTube video from pre-July 2009, accessed May 2014; ‘Mallam Abubakar Shekau’, pre-July 2009 sermon on YouTube, accessed May 2014. YouTube; ‘[Mamman] Nur & Yusuf.’, pre-July 2009 sermon on YouTube, accessed March 2014. See also Jacob Zenn, Atta Barkindo and Nicholas A Heras, “The Ideological Evolution of Boko Haram in Nigeria: Merging Local Salafism and International Jihadism,” RUSI Journal, August/September 2013.

3. Africa Confidential, Vol. 53 No. 24, November 30, 2012.

4. The full video as available via Sahara TV at:

5. The author held an interview at the Banki border post between Nigeria and Cameroon in June 2012 with a 22-year-old, Arabic-speaking ethnic Kanuri former madrassah student in Saudi Arabia. The author recalls the student saying, “We have nothing here, no schools, as you can see, but the government in Abuja has everything, we know it’s rich, and it’s taking money that belongs to us, if we are part of this nation.”

6. “Message to Those Who Lie against the Jihadists,”, Abubakar Shekau, April 18, 2013,

7. Ibid.

8. According to locals in the region who have spoken with colleagues of the author, Boko Haram reportedly warned the girls several weeks before the kidnapping that if they do not pay jizyah, then Boko Haram will kidnap them.

9. “Update on the Nigerian Schoolgirl Abduction,” The Diane Rehm Show, NPR, WAMU, May 8, 2014.

10. “Oh Soldiers of God,”, Abubakar Shekau, November 29, 2012, Available at:

11. “Message to Those Who Lie against the Jihadists,”, Abubakar Shekau, April 18, 2013,