The catalog of atrocities committed by Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is harrowing.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of women and children have been abducted from their homes. Captives report being gang-raped and forced into sexual slavery. Young girls have been sent to blow themselves up in suicide attacks. The relentless slaughter of men, women and children has made Boko Haram the deadliest terrorist group in the world in recent years.
Why would anyone join such a group?
A new report by aid agency Mercy Corps seeks to answer that question. The U.S.-based group interviewed 47 former members about the reasons they entered Boko Haram and published its findings this week.
The militant group has thousands of members, including fighters and people playing other supportive roles, such as smuggling and logistics, analysts say. Its ranks are made up mostly of young men, but it also has some female recruits.
The Mercy Corps report paints a complex picture of Boko Haram’s recruitment tactics.
First, though Boko Haram has lately become notorious for abducting children and forcing captives to fight or carry out suicide attacks, not all recruits join against their will.
Most ex-members interviewed by Mercy Corps fell in the gray area between coercion and choice. Some said they were threatened; some faced extreme pressure from friends, family or colleagues, while others saw the group as their least bad option in impoverished and marginalized northeast Nigeria.
“I officially joined them when they started killing indiscriminately,” one man told Mercy Corps. “I needed protection and immunity from persecution by them so I could continue with my business.”
Second, the group attracts recruits with a blend of religious ideology, social pressure and economic incentives.
The financial draw is not just about escaping poverty and unemployment, both of which are high in northeast Nigeria. In fact, the study found Boko Haram recruits poor and rich, employed and unemployed alike.
Rather, the group plays on the ambitions of young men who are struggling to get ahead in an area with scant financial services and pernicious inequality and corruption.
Several former recruits depicted Boko Haram as a mafia-style organization, offering young entrepreneurs loans for small businesses like shops, salons and tailors and then forcing them to join the group when they couldn’t repay the loan.
One man told Mercy Corps that his Boko Haram recruiter “started playing me their preaching tapes to convince me, and he equally started [financially] assisting me and my parents.” Soon after, his recruiter made it clear that he was obligated to join Boko Haram because of these financial “gifts,” so he fled for his life.
Third, nearly half of the Boko Haram recruits interviewed for the study were women. Some of them were abducted or coerced by their husbands into joining; others were recruited voluntarily by friends or family.
Some women told Mercy Corps that joining Boko Haram provided opportunities for religious study and status within the militant group.
“I just wanted to learn more of the Quran and my religion,” one woman told Mercy Corps.
The study provides an important insight into the profile and motivations of Boko Haram members and offers strategies to stem the flow of recruits. Mercy Corps urged more access to financial services, reintegration of former fighters and support for counter-narratives that have already proved effective against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.
But it should be read with attention to an important piece of context -- Boko Haram has changed almost beyond recognition since it first emerged in 2002.
Before the death of its founder, Muhammed Yusuf, in 2009, the group was a radical but predominantly nonviolent sect that espoused strict Islamic governance as the answer to the region's rampant corruption. After Yusuf was killed, Boko Haram went underground and re-emerged as a brutal insurgency under its hardline and elusive new leader, Abubakar Shekau.
The study found a “marked difference” in Boko Haram’s recruitment techniques after 2009, Mercy Corps’ Rebecca Wolfe, who worked on the report, told The WorldPost.
“As Boko Haram’s tactics became more violent, community acceptance started to go and people weren’t joining as much as being coerced,” she said.
Further, some researchers said that the study’s depiction of Boko Haram attracting wealthier recruits through a coercive micro-lending scheme was more typical of the earlier days of the group under Mohammed Yusuf.
“Yusuf was a wealthy man himself, as well as a charismatic preacher,” Virginia Comolli, the author of Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency, told The WorldPost. “He was able to offer people small amounts of money which they used to set up small businesses like motorbike taxis and paid the proceeds back into the group as membership fees.”
“It was both a way of attracting people and attracting revenues.”
Comolli and other researchers said they had not seen much evidence of such tactics since Yusuf’s death, but the Mercy Corps study found this practice of offering business incentives has continued.
“We did speak with several former members who joined post-2009 who were at least partially influenced or coerced by the offer of business support,” study author Lisa Inks told The WorldPost.
The study demonstrates how Boko Haram, like extremist groups around the world, has multiple ways to attract, intimidate and coerce recruits, including exploiting the socioeconomic and political grievances of the area.
“People are attracted by the violent ideology and by their legitimate grievances against the state,” Comolli said. “You feel like you are somebody when you are given a gun and a mission.”