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What the history of kidnapping tells us about the missing Nigerian girls

Nigerian soldiers patrol in the north of Borno state in search of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram members on June 5, 2013.
Nigerian soldiers patrol in the north of Borno state in search of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram members on June 5, 2013.
Quentin Leboucher/AFP/Getty Images

The nominal leader of Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Sheaku, has threatened to sell the hundreds of girls he's kidnapped into slavery. But many experts suspect that he has an alternative motivation in mind: ransom. "Their goal is almost certainly to ransom [the girls]," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, told me just after the girls were first kidnapped in mid-April.

If Gartenstein-Ross and other experts are right, then we can look to past incidents of kidnapping for ransom for guidance about how this will play out. Luckily, there's some statistical research that just does that. Unfortunately, the implications of that work aren't great for Nigeria.

So why do these experts think it could be ransom? For one thing, it's the motivation that makes the most sense of their decision to kidnap schoolgirls. "Otherwise, they have chosen a target that will make everybody hate them," Gartenstein-Ross says, a prediction that's been borne out by an angry backlash even among other jihadis to the Borno kidnapping. University of California-San Diego political scientist Barbara Walterand regional security analyst Ryan Cummings have also suggested this week that ransom is the most likely goal.

Boko Haram has a history of ransoming captives: they allegedly were paid $3 million by the French government for the safe return of a French family of seven about a year ago. There are already unconfirmed rumors of secret negotiations between the government and Boko Haram over a price.

So what happens if these experts are right? Does that tell us anything about how this standoff might end?

To find out, I emailed Todd Sandler, an economist at the University of Texas at Dallas. In 2013, Sandler and a co-author, Charlinda Santifort, published a paper in the journal Public Choice analyzing what caused terrorist groups to succeed or fail in kidnappings and hostage negotiations. Their data isn't perfect: it covers kidnappings by international terrorist groups, not ones operating just inside their home countries (like Boko Haram). But it does say some interesting things about what makes kidnapping more or less likely to succeed.

There are basically two stages in which hostage-taking can fail: in the attempt to actually seize the hostages (the "logistical" stage) and the attempt to successfully get a ransom for the hostages' safe return (the "negotiation" stage).

Having already taken the girls and hidden them, Boko Haram has succeeded at the logistical stage. Sandler and Santifort's study doesn't look at the success rate of search and rescue missions, like the one the United States is currently supporting. They do note, however, that operating in jungle or mountainous terrain makes hostage-taking significantly likely to succeed at the logistical stage. While it's not a jungle, the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria (where many believe Boko Haram is hiding) is around mountains, and might well provide the group similar advantages in hiding the girls.

Sandler and Santifort's findings about the negotiation stage are more directly relevant Their statistical models find that one of the most important influences on the outcome of a hostage negotiation are the two sides' "disagreement values," meaning how much they have to gain or lose from a failed negotiation. In specifically relevant terms: the more hostages the terrorists have, the higher the stakes, they more likely they are to succeed.

Boko Haram has an estimated 276 hostages — many more than the handful usually taken in kidnappings. On this model, Boko Haram is in a very strong position to make demands, suggesting the government is more likely to give Boko Haram whatever it is that they end up demanding.

There are other relevant factors. Terrorist organizations that sustain casualties are 27.4 percent more likely to give in without extracting a concession from the government. That cuts against concerns that the search-and-rescue mission, which could end in a firefight between Nigerian troops and Boko Haram, may hurt the mission by hardening Boko Haram's resolve against the government. If anything, that risk of a firefight might be putting pressure on the group to lower their demands.

Another important finding in this research get to the heart of what we don't know about Boko Haram. Sandler and Santifort found that terrorist groups that are willing to moderate their demands — lower their financial demands or ask for fewer of the other side's prisoners to be released — are about 23 percent more likely to end in a negotiated settlement. Boko Haram's leadership is opaque and fractured. Influential figures in the group may disagree with one another on how best to balance their goals of sending a message against female education, exacting revenge for Nigerian government arrests of women related to Boko Haram fighters, and extracting a ransom for hostage taking. So how those disagreements actually play out in practice will have a tremendous impact on the end of this crisis.

One last thing: another paper, written by Sandler and Patrick Brandt, found that any concessions make more kidnappings more likely in the long run. "Each successful negotiation," they write, "results on average in 2.62 additional abductions over time." If that's the case, then the Nigerian government has no good options: either they hope they can rescue the girls in time, or they successful negotiate their release and in the process give Boko Haram an incentive to do this all over again.