(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday underlined the issue of poverty as a recruitment tool for extremist groups like Boko Haram, although analysts and Nigerian officials have for months been reporting that the organization is forcibly conscripting civilians, including children, into its ranks.
During his recent Africa trip leaders had told him that much of the challenge in confronting violent extremist groups like Boko Haram lies in fighting poverty, Kerry said at a Council of the Americas conference in Washington.
“They all talked about poverty and the need to alleviate poverty, and that much of this challenge comes out of this poverty where young people are grabbed at an early stage, proffered a little bit of money,” he said.
“Their minds are bended, and then the money doesn’t matter anymore. They’ve got the minds, and they begin to direct them into these very extreme endeavors.”
The Islamist terrorist group has waged a violent campaign against Nigerian Christians and government targets since 2009, but shot to global prominence in recent weeks with its kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in the country’s north-eastern Borno state. Its leader has described them as “slaves” and is threatening to sell them or “marry” them off.
In a new attack this week as many as 300 people were reportedly killed when Boko Haram gunmen opened fire in a marketplace in Borno state.
The U.S. is sending an interagency team to help Nigerian authorities track down and rescue the girls, including a handful of military personnel who the Pentagon says will help with logistics, intelligence planning and communications.
Kerry’s comments on poverty as a key factor follows others by State Department officials in recent years, focusing on socio-economic issues rather than the religious element when discussing Boko Haram.
“It is important to note that religion is not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria,” then-assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson told a Senate committee in March 2012. He said Boko Haram “attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.”
Then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in June 2012 called Boko Haram “a loosely constructed group attached to trying to address grievances in the north.” The U.S. was encouraging Nigeria’s government to “begin a real dialogue about some of the roots of the dissatisfaction in the north, which are primarily economic.”
“Boko Haram thrives because of social and economic problems in the north,” Carson told a House subcommittee in July 2012.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on Boko Haram last April said, “Many youths in the north lack education, have few or no skills and are hardly employable. Idle, they are easily recruited by anti-state and militia groups.”
But the same report also cited security force officials as reporting the flight of male residents of a town in Borno state last June, “following forced conscription by Boko Haram, which threatened to behead whomever refused to join.”
Reports of forced recruitment have been growing in frequency.
“Mass beheadings, forced conscription of youths and forced marriages of local women to Boko Haram members are now more commonplace than at any time since 2009,” according to an October 2013 report in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.
Human Rights Watch in a report following a visit to north-eastern Nigeria last November said witnesses spoke of seeing children in the Boko Haram ranks during attacks.
“The outlawed Boko Haram sect has resorted to forcing people to join its fold,” Nigeria’s This Day newspaper reported in December. An army spokesman said that “the terrorists were now moving around villages and other highways to abduct and forcibly recruit innocent people.”
Last month Daily Trust, an Abuja daily paper, reported that “Boko Haram insurgents are forcefully recruiting young men from Borno villages to fight for them,” quoting some villagers as saying children were among those being seized by the terrorists,
The paper quoted a local cleric as saying the loss of the young men from the farming communities was itself causing “poverty and deprivation” to increase.
Boko Haram, a label given to the group by outsiders, means “Western education is prohibited.”
The group itself uses the name Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (which can be translated Congregation of the People of Islamic Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad). It is demanding shari’a across Nigeria, and has declared war on non-Islamic education, democracy and the large Christian minority in Africa’s most populous country.