ABUJA — Nigerian militants known as Boko Haram are well-armed and presumably well-funded. But as thousands of Nigerian troops battle the Islamist group, analysts say the actual source of the funding is as elusive as the militants themselves. The question is: who or what might be paying for the militancy.
When the Nigerian military announces its victories against Boko Haram, it usually includes a list of the weapons that soldiers have recovered. It used to be mostly AK-47s, ammunition and bombs. More recently the list has included machine guns mounted on trucks, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.
Solid financial support
Political analyst Nkwachukwu Orji says there is no doubt the group is well-funded.
"If not, they would have fizzled out a long time ago. But for them to have continually been able to recruit, to train, to acquire their equipment and resources - that means there’s a sustainable way of funding that organization," he said.
Orji wouldn’t even speculate as to exactly who is paying the bills, as very little is known about the group or its funding. If Nigeria’s intelligence agencies know who is sponsoring the insurgency, they aren’t saying.
What is known, however, is that Boko Haram operations are far more sophisticated than they were when the group began its uprising in 2009 and since then, thousands of people have been killed.
Part of a regional trend?
Clement Nwankwo, the executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, says funding for Boko Haram could be part of a larger regional push by radical Islamist militant groups seeking to acquire territory in West Africa.
"I think there must be some funding coming from extremist groups, coming from some extremist groups who want perhaps to create a base in northern Nigeria," he said.
His theory is supported by recent events in Mali, where militant groups took over much of the country’s north last year. The militants were beaten back in January with the help of the French military.
While Boko Haram has long been known as a shadowy group that melts into society, Nwankwo says it now appears to have more in common with the Mali rebels than was previously thought.
"It would appear that they have established bases in certain parts of the northeast that nobody can even penetrate or go to, and they’ve excluded every symbol of authority in those areas," he said. "Some even say they are in control of various local governments in the northeast and are collecting taxes and running the show in those places."
Last week, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced a state of emergency in three northeastern states and sent thousands of troops to take back areas he said had been occupied by Boko Haram. Since then the military says it has captured more than 200 Boko Haram fighters, killed dozens more, and taken at least five districts back from insurgents in Borno State, the heart of the insurgency.
So far, no journalists or independent observers have found a way to verify the military’s claims and Boko Haram has said nothing since the northern offensive began.
Retired army captain and security consultant Aliyu Umar says the new offensive is still in its beginning stages. He calls Boko Haram funding “elusive” and says the military needs better intelligence figure it out.
"Funding of Boko Haram is quite a very crucial question. If we can get to the bottom of that then we can cut off the source of the funds," he said.
Kidnapping, a major source of income
Boko Haram does have one source of income we know about, Nwankwo says, albeit relatively new. Kidnapping may not have created Boko Haram’s strength but it is now helping it get stronger.
"I have seen news stories now saying that they are embarking on kidnapping to supplement their funding," said Nwankwo. "In that case it means it’s affecting the revenues that are coming in, that’s one. Or two it means they have so many more people to pay that they need extra money in addition to what they’re already getting."
Last year, Boko Haram promised to start kidnapping civilians in retaliation their members' families being imprisoned. This year several prominent Nigerians have been reportedly kidnapped for ransom and the Reuters news agency says it saw documents showing Boko Haram making over $3 million for releasing a kidnapped French family.