New evidence: Neighbours, not Firebrand Imams, recruit Fighters to Boko Haram

Members of the extremist organisation Boko Haram are most often recruited by people they already know, such as friends and family – not by people in mosques or madrasas. Women have larger responsibilities in Boko Haram than previously thought. A fresh study points out that recruiters are adaptive to the tightening security environment.

“If any Boko Haram member tells you he is feeling fine he is a bloody liar. To do so we go about roaming in the bush, we have no good food, we do not bath.”

The quote is from an interview with a former Boko Haram fighter, featured in a new study that aims to get behind the profiles of Boko Haram members and understand the reasons for joining the radical group.

The scale of the research is exceptional. 119 former Boko Haram members were interviewed in December 2015 in Yola and Maiduguri in Nigeria. The sample of ex-fighters is larger than in any previous research on the group. The results of the study were published in the UN headquarters on Monday.

The study was conducted by Finn Church Aid (FCA), The International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), The Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the Citizen Research Centre. It is preceded by similar research carried out by the same authors conducted with Al Shabab fighters in 2014.

In order to put the responses of former fighters into a deeper context, researchers interviewed 60 representatives from Nigerian civil society organisations. The organisations work with for instance community outreach and dialogue, humanitarian assistance, women and youth outreach. The study compares the responses of both groups.

“We always aim for primary source research. Without real first-hand information it is impossible to understand the complexity of the situation, or plan prevention or reintegration initiatives”, says Antti Pentikäinen, Executive Director of The Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.

“This research reinforces the key role of religious leaders in defusing religious tensions and preventing radicalisation. As influencers and role models they can prevent manipulation and misinterpretation of religion by violent extremists. We believe it is crucial that religious leaders are equipped with skills in interreligious dialogue and understanding”, stresses Fahad Abualnasr, KAICIID Director General.

Boko Haram recruits through friends and family

Boko Haram members are most often recruited by people they already know. During the interviews, former Boko Haram fighters explained that people close to them – friends, family and relatives and neighbours – introduced majority of them to the organisation. Contrary to common perceptions, only 27% of former fighters were introduced to the group at mosques or madrasas.

According to study the mosques provide a gathering place, but they are not in themselves a recruiting space. There was very little evidence of individual “firebrand” Imams preaching on the side of Boko Haram to facilitate recruitment, the study finds.

Mahdi Abdile

Mahdi Abdile


“In the pre-9/11 world, mosques and madrasas used to be the place to get new recruits. Today that has changed”, says Mahdi Abdile, Director of Research at FCA and at the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, and the co-author of the study.

“The results of this study highlight the fact that recruiters are adaptive to the tightening security environment, and more than ever before, that women and young girls are increasingly being targeted for recruitment.”

Women more active in recruiting and intelligence gathering

Boko Haram is internationally known especially for its strategy of kidnapping young girls.  According to the study, female Boko Haram members were far more likely to be introduced to the group by force than males. Furthermore, male Boko Haram members were more likely to report joining as a personal decision (11%) than females (2%).

This study, however, refutes the common perception that women predominately serve as wives, or that only women provide domestic support services like cooking and cleaning. In Boko Haram both men and women provide these services. Within the research sample women even surpassed their male counterparts as recruiters (12 and seven) and as intelligence operatives (eight and six).

“This large role of women in Boko Haram was one of the most surprising results we got. For example, in Al Shabab women basically do not have an active role at all”, Mahdi Abdile says.

Why do people join Boko Haram?

The study identifies some key factors behind the reasons for joining Boko Haram. The main ones are: revenge, religion, and personal needs.

57% of former Boko Haram fighters identified the desire for revenge as having a strong influence on their decision to join, or being the only reason for it. The target of the revenge was the military, which according to Boko Haram fighters is brutal, merciless, and pitiless.

Therefore, the study points out that military initiatives and actions should be considered carefully, and must not be counterproductive. Very clear rules of engagement are needed, especially in cases involving non-combatants, in order to prevent future radicalisation.

43% of former fighters indicated that religion had a strong influence on their decision to join Boko Haram. However, according to the interviewees, Boko Haram was not following the true teachings of Islam. Those who joined for religious reasons were vulnerable and not familiar enough with the teachings of the Qur’an to know better.

“First of all, we were carried away by the name of Islam, we were told to go and do Jihad (holy war). After that we came to discover that it was a deceitful way of introducing us into another part of the world.”

23,5% of Boko Haram respondents told they had joined Boko Haram to be respected and feared, while a further 17% stated a need to belong.

Fear played an important role in all the phases of Boko Haram’s activity: recruitment, joining and being a member. Former fighters described a feeling of fear in Boko Haram when being a member and after leaving the group. This fear should be countered by reintegrating former Boko Haram fighters into society, and by involving local communities in helping individuals to feel like a part of a strong community.

The co-author of this study was Dr. Anneli Botha, who works as an independent consultant. The study was supported by Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

To read a summary of the study, click here.


For more information contact: (until 2 Oct in Finland UTC+2; 3-7 Oct US east coast time)
Mahdi Abdile, Director of Research and Prevention of  Violent Extremism,  FCA and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, the co-author of the study +358 50 44 232 92,
Mikko Koivumaa, Head of Communications, FCA, +358 40 559 4030,

This study has been conducted by Dr. Anneli Botha and Mahdi Abdile, and was commissioned by the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and Finn Church Aid with the support of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. The views set out herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) of the partnering institutions.