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What Does the Tactic of Foreign Kidnappings Tell us about Boko Haram?

If the abduction of two Italian priests and a Canadian nun is confirmed to have been conducted by Boko Haram, it will be the Islamist militants' third kidnapping in northern Cameroon.
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Walking in Waza, Far North Region of Cameroon. Photograph by Guillaume Colin/Pauline Penot.

At approximately 2 am on the morning of 5 April, two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were abducted from their residence in northern Cameroon. The incident occurred in Tchere, a settlement located in Cameroon’s Far North Region which shares a border with Nigeria.

While there have been no immediate claims of responsibility for the abduction, suspicion has fallen on the Nigerian-based Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which is believed to have established an operational presence in the region. If confirmed, the latest kidnapping would mark the third abduction of foreign nationals by Boko Haram in northern Cameroon.

In the first such incident, the militant group kidnapped a French family from the town of Dabanga on 19 February 2013. Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded that the Cameroonian government release all detained group members in exchange for the French hostages. The family of seven was released unharmed in April 2013 amid speculation that France had paid a ransom of $3 million, though the exact circumstances surrounding the release remain unclear.

Boko Haram's second kidnapping in Cameroon occurred on 13 November 2013, when suspected group members abducted French priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, from the Far North Cameroonian town of Koza. A few days after the incident, Boko Haram confirmed its involvement in the kidnapping in a statement provided to the Agence France-Presse. Vandenbeusch was eventually released unharmed a month after his capture amid claims that French authorities had again paid a cash ransom to the group. Both France and Boko Haram denied that a ransom was paid, however, with the Islamists claiming that the priest was freed by Shekau on compassionate grounds. But this account was in turn denied by a Cameroon military source who said that Vandenbeusch was exchanged for a senior Boko Haram commander who had been detained by Cameroonian authorities.

Abductions in Nigeria

While these foreign kidnappings in Cameroon were the first to be claimed by Boko Haram, they were preceded by similar abductions in neighboring Nigeria. On 12 May 2011, British national, Chris McManus, and his Italian compatriot, Franco Lamolinara were abducted from their residence in the northern Nigeria city of Birnin Kebbi. The victims, who were engineers of the B. Stabilini construction company, were executed by their captors on March 2012 in the city of Sokoto following a failed rescue attempt by Nigerian and British Special Forces. Their abduction, which the British Foreign Office linked to Boko Haram, marked the first kidnapping of foreigners in Nigeria at the hands of Islamist militants.

Less than eight months later, German engineer Edgar Fritz Raupach became the second foreigner to be kidnapped by the Islamist insurgents when he was seized in the northern city of Kano. Similarly to Lamolinara and McManaus, Raupach was executed during a failed rescue attempt in May 2012. Although al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed Raupach’s abduction, analysts such as Martin Ewi from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS) claimed that Boko Haram facilitated the kidnapping in return for training they had received from AQIM in Mali.

Although Boko Haram was already engaging in kidnapping, the threat to foreign expatriates was arguably only truly realised on 19 December 2012 when Ansaru, a group believed to be a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, orchestrated one of the most daring and well-executed kidnapping operations seen in northern Nigeria. In the attack, dozens of its militants seized French engineer, Francis Colump, from a guarded compound in the town of Rimi, located in Nigeria’s Katsina state. Less than 24 hours after the abduction, Ansaru claimed responsibility for the kidnapping which it said was retaliation for France banning women from wearing a full-face veil in public and the French government’s planned intervention in against Islamists in northern Mali.

On 19 February 2013, the group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven further foreign expatriate workers, employed by the Lebanese-owned Setraco construction company, in the Jama’are local government area in Bauchi State. On 10 March 2013, the group released a video claiming that it had executed the hostages in response to a government attempt to free the hostages.

Operational change?

In recent years, Nigeria-based armed groups have gained notoriety for the kidnapping foreign expatriates. The tactic was previously employed by Nigerian militants operating in the country’s southern Niger Delta as a means of soliciting both socio-economic concessions from the Nigerian government and ransom payments from multinational firms operating within the oil-rich region. The relative success of these groups further served to encourage criminal networks, which have also abducted foreign expatriates within and outside the country’s borders.

However, the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic by Nigerian Islamists is a development that has a much wider-reaching impact than merely scaring off would-be tourists or stymieing foreign investment. With the Nigerian government already struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency which may be expanding outside its borders, the use of kidnapping will only further complicate counterinsurgency initiatives. Ransom payments will likely be used to purchase more weaponry and/or recruit more fighters, while hostage exchanges will also result in the likes of Boko Haram and Ansaru reclaiming high level members and subsequently strengthening their operational capabilities.

Moreover, the recent increase of foreign kidnappings in northern Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon may itself be indicative of an operational evolution of Nigerian-based Islamist militant groups. To date, the tactic has been employed with great efficacy by various al-Qaeda-linked groups who have kidnapped foreign nationals in the likes of Algeria, Mali and Mauritania.

In a declassified report issued by the British government in 2013, it was estimated that at least $70 million in ransom payments had been paid to Islamist kidnappers since 2009 and that al-Qaeda’s North African branch had received an estimated $45 million.

Nevertheless, in accordance with the high pay-offs, the kidnapping of foreign nationals remains a high-risk undertaking subject to various logistical and operational challenges. In this regard, the fact that Nigerian Islamists have been able to execute such abductions with a relative degree of success speaks volumes of their own operational capabilities. Perhaps even more disconcertingly, the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic by Boko Haram and Ansaru could serve as the most credible evidence of some form of connection or cooperation between these groups and wider al-Qaeda-linked networks.

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