On the Freeing of 21 Chibok Girls and the Question of Negotiating with Jihadists

On October 13, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram released twenty-one of the 276 schoolgirls who were originally kidnapped in April 2014 in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok. There are an estimated 197 girls still in captivity or otherwise missing.

The release was an extraordinary event for Nigeria and, in several senses, for the world. For Nigeria, the release occasioned widespread celebration and has become one of the brightest spots in the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who faces broad and mounting criticism at home, especially over economic issues.

For the world, the release is a reminder that negotiation, at least in limited areas, is possible with jihadist groups. That reminder comes at an important time, amid the looming recapture of Mosul, Iraq, and the dogged effort to complete the reconquest of Sirte, Libya. Both efforts, and the effort to defeat the Islamic State in general, are haunted by the question of what comes after reconquest, especially in terms of political settlements, humanitarian concerns, and economic reinvigoration. That question also haunts the effort against Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, where the sect has been pushed back but not completely defeated.

The details of the negotiations with Boko Haram for the Chibok girls are not known, but it is reported that the Swiss government and the ICRC acted as intermediaries between the sect and the government. Despite the Nigerian government’s denials, it is likely that the incentives offered to Boko Haram involved a ransom payment, prisoner releases, or both.

Of course, it is well known that negotiating with jihadists over hostages is possible, including in West Africa. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransoms to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Toure (served 2002-2012) allowed exchanges of imprisoned jihadists for hostages. Reactions to these decisions, whether from the United States, from Western journalists, or from Mali’s neighbors, has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are also precedents for negotiating with Boko Haram over hostages. This is not even the first time that Boko Haram has (likely) received a ransom: it appeared likely in 2013 and 2014 that the Cameroonian government (and in the first instance, the French government as well) had paid Boko Haram to release prisoners. The release of the Chibok girls, then, followed a familiar script; it just had a higher profile than the previous instances.

If it’s well known that one can sometimes negotiate with jihadists, then why isn’t the possibility discussed more in policy circles? The most obvious answer is that many people oppose such negotiations. For example, in response to the Chibok girls’ release, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation reiterated his argument from 2014 that negotiations are inadvisable. At the time, Meservey wrote, “A payment or prisoner release will perpetuate the cycle by encouraging further kidnappings and enabling more of Boko Haram’s rampages when the government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens.” Meservey’s view aligns with current U.S. policy, which is not to pay ransoms when citizens are kidnapped. Many people, moreover, oppose negotiations on moral grounds, believing that to negotiate with jihadists implies some tacit legitimation of their demands.

Regarding the consequences of ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, I think that context matters a lot. The kind of cycle that Meservey describes is most likely to play out when jihadists do not face major military pressure. A good example of this might be the policies of the Malian government under Toure, when Malian prisoner exchanges with AQIM elicited disgust (and the withdrawal of ambassadors) from Mali’s neighbors Mauritania and Algeria. In addition, many experts believe that there was some collusion between Toure’s government and various bad actors in northern Mali.

Under those circumstances, the payment of ransoms (by European governments) and the exchange of prisoners (by Mali’s government) were bad policies. But they were bad policies because of the lack of military and political pressure on AQIM within Mali. With Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, the cycle Meservey describes was indeed playing out in 2013-2014. But now, with Boko Haram under tremendous military pressure, exchanges and payments will not necessarily empower the group over the long term. If a government pays ransoms in order to save lives, then that government should follow up the ransom payment will an increase in pressure on the kidnappers.

But there is more at stake than just whether to pay ransoms or not. The possibility of negotiating with jihadists is also seldom floated, I think, because it goes counter to many people’s assumption that the only serious way to fight jihadism is through war. There are, of course, “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that attempt to de-radicalize prisoners or to prevent people from becoming jihadists in the first place, but CVE programs are not political solutions per se. Most CVE programs do not primarily target active combatants, partly because those combatants are beyond the physical reach of program implementers. The combatants, then, are often treated as a purely military problem. Even when policymakers say that they do not intend to kill all of the combatants, their actions often suggest otherwise, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Nigeria. Pragmatically, I think such strategies are short-sighted and are likely to generate future conflicts.

I have long favored negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both because I believe limited negotiations can save lives (a stance that I think is vindicated in the case of the recent release) and because I believe it would be wrong, morally and pragmatically, to try to kill all the members of Boko Haram. And if the Nigerian government and its neighbors are not going to kill all of them, then perhaps there is much to talk about. Some leaders and members of the group might never surrender or abandon their goals. But if the door to negotiations is left open, perhaps there are possibilities even beyond prisoner exchanges – the possibility, for example, of offering an option where members could turn themselves in, stand trial, and serve finite prison terms, but where they would not be executed. For fighters starving in the countryside, such an option might eventually prove attractive. The more fighters who accepted it, the more lives might be saved. As I have said in the past, I believe that the Nigerian government should keep reaching out to Boko Haram, no matter how many times it is rebuffed or how many times attempted dialogue ends in failure.

This position – the idea that it is worth trying to open some channel of communication with jihadists – puts me in a minority among analysts, but I am not completely alone. Reuters (h/t Eleanor Beevor) recently reported that the ICRC is attempting to contact the Islamic State in Mosul in order to discuss “the basic rules of war.” Here is the ICRC’s Robert Mardini:

We need to keep hope, and maybe the situation in Mosul is a point in time when also all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State group, will see the benefits of having the basic rules of war and the basic rules of dignity prevailing in the battle because it gives guarantees for humane treatment of all.

Do I think that the Islamic State will be keen to answer the ICRC’s phone calls? No. But I do think that the effort of reaching out is worthwhile. Let me offer a last reason: you never know who is watching, and how such outreach might overturn their assumptions about the West, about the inevitability and desirability of violence, and about the prospects for peace.

On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.

On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Mali: Jihadist Wives

Read the news out of Mali and you will hear almost exclusively about men. That’s one reason I was struck by this (ultimately somewhat thin) article from France 24. Another is the issue of how Islamist groups interacted with local communities in northern Mali. An excerpt:

FRANCE 24 met with the wife of a jihadist leader from the Gao region.

Mariam moved back to her mother’s house in this peaceful village near Gao, in northern Mali, when her husband left the area.

She won’t say her husband’s name, but everyone in town knows he is Abu Dardar, one of the most brutal and feared jihadist leaders in the region.

He saw Mariam in the market one day and decided he was going to marry her. He liked the way she was dressed. He hated women who wore shirts or dresses but she was veiled and already a devout Muslim. Mariam had become a radical when she married her first husband, whom she had three children with, before he abandoned her.

Slippery terms like “radical” hinder analysis more than they help in this case – what does it mean that she “became a radical”? – but the story gives a glimpse into how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali was partly localized.

I do not have much on Abu (also spelled Abou) Dardar. One Malian source (French) states that he is Algerian, as many senior leaders in the Islamist coalition are/were. After the Islamist coalition – Ansar al Din, Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – gained control of northern Mali in the spring of last year, Abou Dardar appeared frequently in the press as a spokesman. Usually news sources identified him as a MUJWA leader, but sometimes as a leader of one of the other groups (this trend, which has appeared with press coverage of other leaders, suggests either fluidity of membership between these groups, or confusion in the media, or both). We find Abou Dardar speaking to the press after reported clashes between MUJWA and the separatist northern group the MNLA in November, after Islamists’ destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in December, after the French intervention began in January, and during continued combat in the far north in February.

If Abou Dardar is indeed Algerian, his marriage to this Malian woman may fit part of a broader pattern mentioned in sources like this 2010 analysis (French) by Le Figaro of how AQIM developed local ties in northern Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former AQIM commander reportedly killed this month, was one AQIM leader who allegedly married a Malian woman (from Timbuktu, in this case). A Malian source quoted by Le Figaro called such marriages “a true social intermingling [which] offers real protection.”

The marriages also make defining “local” difficult in the context of the crisis in northern Mali. Some observers are quick to depict AQIM and MUJWA as “foreign” to Mali. But the ties these groups have developed in northern Malian communities, and the fact that some members of these groups are Malian nationals, points to a more complicated reality.

Africa News Roundup: President Kenyatta, Maiduguri Bombings, CAR, and More


Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, won the presidential election with a slim margin of 50.03 percent of votes cast, provisional figures showed, just enough to avoid a run-off.

Reuters again:

Seven loud explosions shook Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri on Friday, witnesses said, hours after President Goodluck Jonathan ended a trip there to try to galvanize support for his battle against Islamist insurgents.

The Punch: “Boko Haram Destroys 209 Schools in Yobe.”


French forces have seized a significant arms cache in northern Mali believed to have belonged to Islamist jihadist groups, including “tons” of heavy weapons, suicide belts and equipment for improvised explosive devices, France’s defense minister said Friday.

Magharebia: “Algeria Focuses on [AQIM Fighters in] Kabylie.”

IRIN: “Briefing: Militias in Masisi.”

RFI (French): “Central African Republic: Refugees Continue to Flee Fighting and Insecurity.”

What else is happening?

Quick Items: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Mali, Goodluck Jonathan Visits Yobe and Borno [Updated]

Two noteworthy stories:

Mauritania and Mali

In a speech on Monday, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz expressed greater openness than in the recent past to the idea of Mauritanian deployments in Mali. Mauritanian forces chased fighters from Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb into northern Mali at several points in 2010 and 2011, but during 2012 Abdel Aziz stated repeatedly that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali.

On Monday Abdel Aziz also emphasized his country’s role in “encircling [hardline Islamist fighters] in the north of Mali in order to enable Malian units to intervene and finish them off in their dens.” ANI (Arabic) has more on the speech.


On February 28, governors from an alliance of Nigerian opposition parties held a day-long conference in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, epicenter of the violent Boko Haram sect. The Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust commented, “the fact that the governors took the bull by the horns and held their meeting in Maiduguri, despite security reports that there may be attacks and blasts by suspected insurgents speak volume of their determination to give the [ruling] Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a run for its money.”

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is set to visit the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno (where Maiduguri is the capital) today. One source says this visit “will be his first to the troubled states since his assumption of office.” Residents in Borno and Yobe interviewed by Leadership expressed a range of views about the visit, with some optimistic that Jonathan may use the moment to announce compensation programs or other initiatives, and others fearful that the visit will bring an even tighter security lockdown.

The Sultan of Sokoto, meanwhile, called on Jonathan this week to offer an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters. The Sultan said, “If there is amnesty declared we believe so many of those young men who have been tired of running and hiding will come out and embrace that amnesty.”

UPDATE: Reuters:

“I cannot talk about amnesty with Boko Haram now until they come out and show themselves,” Jonathan told reporters in Yobe state capital Damaturu, a town regularly hit by the sect’s guerrilla-style bomb and gun attacks.

See also Chike’s remarks in the comments section below.