Financing the terror of Boko Haram

By Sophie Jacobs

The prevention of terror attacks by limiting financing is becoming more and more prevalent as the financing of terror becomes a global activity and money moves ever more fluidly throughout bank accounts worldwide. Successful operations targeting terror financing have harmed groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda as well as the charities that support them.

However, not all terror groups are created equal. Those listed above are run like businesses or political parties, which have clear hierarchy and methods of funding that include international bank transfers. Other groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria are a different matter entirely and have more in common with insurgency groups, which use a variety of tactics and focus on local rather than international targets.

Boko Haram’s haphazard style makes it difficult to respond to. It is not an organization with a defined hierarchical leadership (unlike Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 Al Qaeda centered in Afghanistan, Hamas, or Hezbollah) which increases the difficulty in responding to it. While specific leaders can be targeted, it would do little to eliminate the violence caused by Boko Haram. How can we target a group that isn’t cohesive but commits brazen and destructive acts?

Background and Designation

Boko Haram was first established in 2002 as a non-violent group “safeguarding” local politicians (much of its money came from extortion, a “safety” tax members would impose on local officials). It didn’t get much attention until 2009, when its leader, the cleric Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody. Since then the group has targeted members of the Nigerian military as well as local Christian and Western interests such as churches and the UN building in Abuja. It also targets senior Muslim leaders who speak out against the group and Muslims it believes are acting inappropriately or contrary to their Salafist views.

While the group has received media attention recently after kidnapping at least 250 Nigerian girls from a school, it has killed thousands of people over the past few years, with as many as 1,000 dead already in 2014. The group killed entire villages indiscriminately, sowing fear amongst civilians in northern Nigeria both Christian and Muslim.

The U.S. didn’t officially designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) until November 2013, although three leaders were designated prior to that (including Abubaker Shekau, the leader now famous for posting the video taking credit for kidnapping the girls, who some believe is already dead). The effect of being on the FTO list can be crippling if a group gets significant amount of funding from the US or holds assets there. It criminalizes affiliation with the group meaning that members can be deported, known supporters can be denied US visas, persecutes those in the U.S. who provide funds, and blocks any known assets of the group.

It has been widely reported that the US refused to designate Boko Haram after it attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011 for some logical if misguided reasons; scholars worried that it would internationalize the group and its claims, gaining it more support. Others at the time noted that it was a regional rather than international threat and that designation could legitimize human rights abuses by the Nigerian government against members of the group.

Until recently, the group showed little interest in attacking areas outside Northern Nigeria, which is largely due to it being a collection of smaller criminal groups that were more focused on local criminal activity than jihadi beliefs.

The U.S. wound up designating Boko Haram just seven months ago in November 2013, citing links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and “thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria over the last several years including targeted killings of civilians”. The same notice announces the designation of Ansaru, a “splinter faction” that kidnapped and executed foreign workers and is known for its violence and AQIM ties.


To stop Boko Haram we have to stop the financing that allows them to function. For the past several years, charity groups and individuals in Europe and Saudi Arabia have been accused of funding Boko Haram. The difficulty with preventing the funding of Boko Haram matches the problems in attacking the funds of other terror groups – finding the line between charitable donations and financing terror. Charities such as London’s Al-Muntada Trust pride themselves on funding some of the world’s poorest communities through charities and specifically their most recent work in Syria; however, the UK’s Charity Commission and Metropolitan police have also accused it of financing Boko Haram.

Boko Haram is an affiliate of Al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As such it received funding from the same groups as AQIM*, and there are unproven reports that Bin Laden sent Boko Haram financial support in its early years.  The depth of the link between AQIM and Boko Haram has always been questioned, with some experts claiming shared funding, others training and weapons trade. Following the death of leader Yusuf in 2009 AQIM itself released official statements offering training and weaponry in support of the insurgent group. Many sources including Boko Haram expertsNigerian and Algerian intelligence services, and the US military allege that AQIM continues to provide Boko Haram with weapons, funding, and training in northern Mali.

[*It should be noted that relationships between terror groups and local insurgencies are often of convenience, meaning that while a group such as Al Qaeda might renounce violence, its affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could still support violent groups for the purposes of expanding regional  influence and maintaining local safe havens. In this case, while Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls was not condoned, it does not necessarily mean AQIM’s support of the group will stop.]

However, these reports can be looked at with a critical eye. It would benefit the Nigerian government to stress links with Al Qaeda, a group that Western countries are familiar with and fighting to stop. Mentioning an Al Qaeda threat immediately earns Nigeria’s government sympathy and aid regardless of the truthfulness of the reports. In addition, some experts believe that the link between AQIM and Boko Haram was never strong to begin with and that the real connection was between AQIM and Ansaru, a group that split from Boko Haram years ago.

Regardless, it is clear that Boko Haram’s ability to function is related to the regional power vacuum that allows it (or the various groups that make it up) access to weapons, training, and illicit funding. Therefore, the best way to slow down the group would be to slow down the lifelines that run between the various terror groups in the region (also called the Arc of Instability across the Sahara and Sahel). AQIM operates relatively freely in Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania, and Boko Haram in Cameroon and (less freely) Northern Nigeria. Fluid borders and corrupt leadership make targeting the groups and their activities very difficult.

In addition, little can be done at this point about the weapons they already have, many of which came from Libya in the power vacuum that followed the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, aside from targeting weapons caches. While the Nigerian military has been attempting to do this for years, few inroads have been made.

Unfortunately, for the most part Boko Haram’s financing is much more difficult to stop than, for example, prosecuting charities that funnel money to Hamas. While it receives funding from sources that finance other groups in the region like AQIM, it also uses criminal acts to get money like bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom.

As with many terror groups in the Middle East, part of Boko Haram’s appeal to the young men who join it is unrelated to religion – it flourishes in a part of Nigeria and nearby countries where poverty and unemployment reign, where government corruption is rampant and young people are left with few options.

As a result, stopping the financing of Boko Haram is going to take new measures from what is currently popular – tracking money from country to country just is not possible when funds are raised by local criminal acts. Until Boko Haram becomes truly internationalized, it is going to be up to local officials or those with the capacity to work locally to truly fight the ability of Boko Haram to finance itself. This will come in the form of physically tracking the money robbed from banks or obtained through ransoms as well as having people on the ground. This, and using intelligence to find weaponry, is going to be the main way to prevent Boko Haram going forward.

Nigeria itself is asking for help and the West should provide it with counter-terrorism experts and intelligence – the Pentagon recently released its aid plan and Israel sent its own experts. While the group is local now, it could easily become an international player in the future and as such, Western countries have an incentive to help.


Sophie Jacobs has a BS in economics and mathematics from the University of Washington and an MA in Middle East Studies from Tel Aviv University. She works as a terror finance analyst  and blogs about Middle East economics, finance, and business.

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