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.

A note from the Editor: WIIS Israel believes that with greater understanding comes greater security. Therefore we encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reactions as political events unfold. That said, each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not speak to the views of the organization of WIIS Israel or its members.


By Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Yesterday I arrived in Amsterdam with my colleagues from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) as well as members of the nonproliferation community to address what President Obama has called “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” – nuclear terrorism. This so-called “Knowledge Summit” and a separate nuclear industry summit precede a gathering of over 40 heads of state in The Hague on March 24-25 for the Nuclear Security Summit. This will be the third of such gatherings that began in 2010 in Washington, D.C., when President Obama brought together the largest group of heads of state hosted by a U.S. president since 1945 with the ambitious goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material. Two years later, in 2012, a second Summit was hosted in Seoul, Korea. In 2016, President Obama will again host what many assume will be the last Summit.

Perhaps the most important achievement that has come out of these Summits is the spotlight they’ve shone on an issue beyond most people’s radars. The threat of nuclear terrorism remains, for many, abstract, and its solution – nuclear security – is complex and technical. The Summits have also led to consensus among world leaders that the threat is grave enough to warrant their attention, cooperation and commitment to work toward a more secure world. But with the third Summit fast approaching and the fourth, and perhaps final, Summit looming in 2016, it’s time to ensure that the Summit process will produce the system and mechanisms necessary to achieve the mission that first inspired heads of state to gather in Washington beyond 2016.

Why is the threat so grave? There are nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material (the highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium that can be used to build a nuclear bomb) in hundreds of sites—some of them poorly secured—in 25 countries around the world. That’s enough material to build 20,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Hiroshima and 80,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Nagasaki. We know that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have actively sought this material. We know the technology and know-how exists to help build a bomb and that a group like al-Qaeda wouldn’t hesitate to use it to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Imagine if the terrorists on 9/11 had not used planes but a nuclear weapon.

That’s the bad news. But there is good news. The hardest step for a terrorist is to acquire nuclear material. That means there’s a solution – secure all material to the highest possible standard wherever it is located. This is the goal of the Nuclear Security Summits.

So far, the Summits have resulted in significant contributions to global security and have reduced the threat of nuclear terrorism. At NTI, we’ve measured some of this progress through the Nuclear Materials Security Index, a unique public assessment of nuclear materials security conditions around the world, produced with the Economist Intelligence Unit. NTI developed the Index to promote action by governments and to fill certain gaps not addressed by the Summits—namely, the lack of any consensus on priorities for securing nuclear material and any means to track progress. The 2014 Index demonstrated significant progress since 2012. Most importantly, seven countries got rid of their weapons-usable nuclear material. In addition, of the 25 countries with these materials, nine improved their nuclear security laws and regulations and eleven signed important treaties that govern nuclear security and joined or contributed to international organizations and institutions that support global cooperation. Many of these improvements – almost a third of those captured in the Index – are attributable to the Summit process.

These and other individual country commitments have undoubtedly made the world more secure. But global problems are never solved with individual actions alone. That’s why the major challenge still exists:  there is no global system for securing nuclear material.  What does that mean? It means that, incredibly, the security of what is some of the world’s most dangerous material is not subject to any common international standards or “rules of the road” that all countries must follow. There is no international body or mechanism tasked with holding states accountable for lax security and no expectation for countries to build confidence that they are effectively securing their materials. That’s right. Even though material stolen in one country could be used in a nuclear bomb in another, many countries prefer to say to others, “Just trust me.”

Compare this to the civil aviation industry. Every time we board a plane, we can feel confident because almost all countries are members of an international body that sets safety and security standards. The organization audits airlines, shares concerns with other member states and therefore enables countries to make a decision whether to ban that airline from landing at its airports. We all benefit from this cooperation. But the fact is, the consequences of a plane crash, though tragic, would pale in comparison to the catastrophic results of a nuclear bomb exploding in one of our cities – hundreds of thousands dead and injured, dire economic, environmental, and public health consequences, the loss of civil liberties, and, indeed, the loss of our way of life.  The lack of a global system to prevent this just doesn’t make sense.

Nuclear terrorism is a shared threat and a shared, not just a sovereign, responsibility. World leaders at the upcoming Summit can make important progress on this mutual challenge by agreeing on the principles of a global nuclear security system in which:

  • all nuclear material, in both civilian and military programs, would be covered;
  • international standards and best practices would be employed consistently;
  • countries would build confidence in the effectiveness of their nuclear security; and
  • risk would be minimized by the reduction and, where possible, elimination of nuclear materials so that they no longer pose a threat.

Leaders must also decide on the process for building such a system and on how to sustain the momentum and attention on the nuclear security mission that the Summits have so far provided beyond 2016. There is no institution or mechanism currently designed to take this mission on. The time between the 2014 and 2016 Summits will provide a narrow window of opportunity to begin to put in place the global system needed to achieve the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material and to ensure continued focus on the nuclear security mission. If 2016 arrives and leaders fail to do so, the window will close. The mission is too great and the risks too dire to allow this to happen.


Samantha Pitts-Kiefer is a Senior Program Officer at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C. She holds an M.P.A.  from the Harvard Kennedy School, a J.D. from Villanova University, and a B.A. from St. Olaf College. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Stanli Montgomery

Weapons proliferation.  Cyber-security.  Global warming.  Drug laundering. International trade. All of these above issues, among many others, are top priorities that affect national as well as international security and dominate the agendas of international bodies.   However, terrorism, while still an important component of national security, has currently been waning in importance and coverage.

This is not without good reason.  There has been a series of accomplishments over the past several years that leads one to believe that terrorism is a diminishing threat to the United States.  For one, the long-time leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed in May 2011, which essentially cut off the head of the organization.  It was also a major blow to the symbolic nature of the organization – bin Laden was the face of al-Qaeda and synonymous with fear, terrorist attacks and the loss of many lives.

The successes do not end there.  There have been numerous senior al-Qaeda members based in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region who have either been killed through military strikes or captured and interrogated, leading to further uprooting of the organization from its original safe haven since September 11, 2001.   Primary affiliates, to include al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have also suffered major setbacks such as the loss of leadership and the thwarting of major attacks.  Because of these successes – in addition to greater world-wide awareness of these groups, the help of individual nations stemming home-grown threats, and other international efforts – the organization we knew in 2001 is very different now.

It is important to not lose sight of the threat of terrorism in the coming years. The fiscal environment understandably calls for all agencies, terrorism-related or not, to prioritize national security threats more strictly.  However, one must recognize that terrorism still persists and important security policies require a similar sense of urgency to stem the prospects of terrorism and its root causes.

The primary reason for this is that terrorism has not completely diminished and continues to pose a very salient threat to the U.S. and its allies, including in North and West Africa as well as the Middle East. Many nations around the world have been more vigilant in combating the spread of al-Qaeda-associated and attributed violence throughout this region, most notably by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and loosely al-Qaeda affiliated group Nigeria-based group Boko Haram.  Recently, France, with the assistance of other nations including the United States, has been trying to rid AQIM of its safe haven in Mali.  And while France and her allies have been successful to some extent in rolling back the terrorists,  there have been indications that these elements could possibly reemerge in other areas as well.

Terrorism has not diminished because the threat it poses is coupled with other security threats. Terrorism in and of itself does not exist within a vacuum. Standalone issues such as cyber threats, weapons proliferation and civil war can be used as a tactic or strategy for terrorist groups. It takes a whole-of-government approach to address these linked threats.  However, as seen in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and East Africa, due to the resources devoted to counter-terrorism efforts, the U.S. and her allies have been successful in addressing and mitigating terrorism with the back drop of other major security threats.  If and when the emphasis on combating terrorism decreases, it may be difficult in the long term to experience similar successes.

To be sure, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is very different from 12 years ago and there are many strikes against it.  However, making counter-terrorism efforts less of a priority assumes the risk of allowing terrorists to conduct more strategic and spectacular attacks. The current Syrian civil war is a prime example in which there are many elements that pose a threat to U.S. interests and allies in the region. As there has been a rise in opposition against the Bashir Assad regime, the opposition has been increasingly countered by outside support for the Assad regime, including by Iran and Hezbollah.  On the other hand, many, sources have indicated that the al- Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which is associated with the al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, are based within Syria and working with the opposition groups. Although it appears as though terrorism is a small portion of the current conflict, the terrorism element can no doubt create a complicated, longer-term issue.  It will likely prove to be difficult to decouple from not only the opposition but possibly from how the U.S. will work with a presumably new opposition-leaning government.

It is understandably necessary for our leaders in national security to differentiate the up-and-coming threats while also forming and implementing plans to mitigate these threats.  As the world continues to change and adapt, so do adversaries. However, the efforts and strides that were and are still being made in the fight against global terrorism should not be abandoned.


Stanli Montgomery is a Georgetown graduate and focuses on international security affairs in the Defense Department.  She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog. Any opinions expressed in this article are her own.

Further Reading:
Foreign Affairs: Settling Syria, Why a Negotiated Peace is Possible – And Likely
Center for a New American Security: Light-Footprint: The Future of American Military Intervention