What makes a 19-year-old living in Nigeria join the deadliest terror group in the world?
Sometimes the story goes like this: A young person is struggling to make it as an entrepreneur, running a new small business. A "benefactor" approaches, offering a loan. When they later return, demanding repayment, anyone who doesn’t have the money is forced to join Boko Haram, the group responsible for killing 20,000 Nigerians over the last nine years.
The entrepreneurs' story isn't the kind of thing that usually makes it into the international news. We're more likely to hear about Boko Haram members who are kidnapped and then turned into killers. Others, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are religious zealots. But most insurgents lie somewhere in between, joining for reasons that might have to do with frustration with government corruption, peer pressure, or, like the entrepreneurs, a mix of coercion and an attempt to make a living.
Those are all factors that can begin to be reversed if they're better understood, says a new report from the nonprofit Mercy Corps. After interviewing dozens of former Boko Haram fighters—and other young people who resisted joining—the organization put together a set of suggestions for how the Nigerian government can work to prevent terrorism from growing, and how to deal with the former insurgents who are starting to return back to society.
Often, the reasons that people assume motivate terrorists, from religion to unemployment, aren't necessarily accurate, the report found.
"It’s difficult for people to make sense of why their neighbors, friends, and fellow community members would participate in violence, and so they point to potential factors that are evident, like poverty," says Lisa Inks, peacebuilding advisor for Mercy Corps and the author of the report. "You can’t observe frustration or ambition as easily. These intangible factors can be very powerful motivators for violence, but they can go overlooked if we don’t ask the right questions or even the right people. We started talking to youth themselves who were involved in the violence, rather asking other people why they thought those youth were involved in violence."
Nigeria's problems with government corruption, and officials who are disconnected from the needs of youth, often motivate people to join Boko Haram when the group promises to fix what's wrong. The good news: The same messaging that recruiters try to use can also be used against them. Boko Haram is equally, if not more, corrupt.
"Boko Haram has failed to deliver any viable alternative to the government," says Inks. "Their extremely brutal tactics began to alienate communities and erode any support they once had. That’s why local counter-narratives about Boko Haram as corrupt and hypocritical are sticking among many youth, especially given how concerned youth are with governance issues and corruption. So the Nigerian government has an opportunity now to build or rebuild trust with communities."
Those counter-narratives are most powerful when they come from trusted local leaders or friends or family, making it a little tricky for the government or outside nonprofits to try to coordinate their own anti-Boko Haram campaign. But groups can work to strengthen youths' social ties to people who can help talk them out of becoming terrorists.
"As the findings show, local counter-narratives are working partially because they’re so local, and so responsive to community interests," she says. "So amplifying these narratives, either from civil society or government, will be delicate. It’s important that very local organizations are instrumental in identifying influential leaders in communities and helping amplify their voices through channels that people already use."
The government or other organizations can also try to slowly start to help fill some of the roles that Boko Haram has taken on, like making small business loans. "Helping to fill the gap in financial services that Boko Haram has been exploiting will be a long process," she says. "Right now, infrastructure, institutions, and services in the Northeast are depleted. We first need to look at what is being done or can be done informally, like facilitating local savings groups. Then, for the long term, civil society and the private sector need to partner to identify financial products, and business support mechanisms, that will be appropriate for youth."
The government can also begin to involve youth in programs to help improve their communities, giving them an outlet for change that doesn't involve terrorism.
Another challenge is helping youth who leave Boko Haram reintegrate into society, especially when their former communities might reject them for what they may have done. In the last few weeks, hundreds of former fighters have surrendered.
"Based on what we saw, the need to figure out how communities are going to integrate their members is only growing by the day, and a lot of people might want out, but they might not have a place to go," says Inks.
Despite the huge scale of the challenge—Boko Haram has displaced around 2 million people and destroyed thousands of communities—Inks is optimistic that the right interventions can help guide the country back to peace and better opportunities for youth.
"Even in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with a painful lack of opportunities and frustration with government, most youth remain peaceful," she says. "We are encouraged by the strategies that many youth use to resist Boko Haram, and we think that government and civil society have an important role to play in helping more youth adopt these strategies. Pairing actual action—effective governance and responding to community needs—with smart messaging can go a long way in steering youth into productive participation in their communities."
Images: Corinna Robbins and Ballama Mustafa for Mercy Corps. Note: None of the former Boko Haram members interviewed for the report are pictured, for safety reasons. These photos show families and communities affected by Boko Haram violence.