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How Kidnapping Became Big Business in Nigeria – The Journal. – WSJ Podcasts – The Wall Street Journal

In 2014, the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria. It gave rise to a viral Twitter movement #BringBackOurGirls and would eventually inspire hundreds of similar kidnappings in the years that followed. The WSJ's Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson explain how criminal groups are building a kidnapping for ransom industry in Nigeria.
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Habiba: Habiba Iliyasu (foreign language).
Ryan: Habiba Iliyasu is a 15 year old school girl from Northern Nigeria. Recently, she told us the story of how she was kidnapped from her boarding schools, dormitory with hundreds of other classmates.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: So Habiba and her friends were in the boarding house in February.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: After dark, while they're sleeping, they heard the sound, the rumble of engines, flashlights coming into the courtyard and the sound of voices barking in through the windows, "Come outside, we're soldiers. We're here to protect you."
Ryan: But they weren't real soldiers and they weren't there to protect them. They were there to kidnap them.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: And then at gunpoint, marched them into the forest.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: And there's a huge forest area that goes across Northwest Nigeria called the Rugu Forest. And criminal groups, after their kidnapping operations immediately move their hostages into the Rugu Forest. There could be thousands of people in there right now, who've been kidnapped, who've been abducted.
Ryan: And these kidnapping groups don't limit themselves to school children as Habiba found out.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: On the second day, when they were deeper into the forest, as they got to this secluded area, they saw another group of hostages about 50 meters away. And inside that group of hostages was actually Habiba's own father.
Habiba's father: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: Her father had also been kidnapped separately from her village. She had no idea that he'd been taken. She'd been taken from her school. He'd been taken from their home.
Habiba's father: (foreign language).
Joe Parkinson: It's only after a few hours that she gets close enough to her father who's blindfolded, where she can speak into his ear and he can hear her voice. And he actually says to her, is it you? Is it my Habiba? And her father is obviously over the moon to hear her voice, but then immediately terrified about why he's hearing her voice. He knows then that she's been given abducted. So they're able to exchange some words and he's able to say whatever you do, do not say that you know me, because I don't want it to compromise your safety.
Ryan: Habiba and her father had both been kidnapped for ransom by groups operating in the Northern part of Nigeria. And they are just two victims among thousands.
Joe Parkinson: Kidnapping is basically Nigeria's fastest growing business sector. It's really reached epidemic proportions in June, when the last data set is available, nearly 1500 people were taken. That's 45 people being kidnapped every single day.
Habiba: That's our colleague, Joe Parkinson. He says that over the past several years, thousands of people in Nigeria have been kidnapped. And as the government and families pay ransoms to get them back, kidnapping has turned into a big business. Welcome to The journal. Our show about money, business and power. I'm Ryan Knutson. It's Friday, August 6th. Coming up on the show, the rise of Nigeria's kidnap economy. Over the past few months, our producer Laura Morris has been working on this story with two Wall Street journal reporters, Joe Parkinson, and Drew Hinshaw. Joe and Drew just published a book on the rise of kidnappings in Nigeria. In their research, they spoke to former Nigerian officials, kidnapping victims, hostage negotiators, and even kidnappers. So today I'm going to do something a little different and hand the mic over to Laura. She's going to explain how this industry of kidnapping has grown out of something that you might remember the well-meaning Twitter hashtag, bring back our girls. Here's Laura.
Laura: In 2014, almost 300 young women were kidnapped, just like Habiba. Taken from their boarding school in the middle of the night at gunpoint and driven into the forest.
Joe Parkinson: That decision to take them into the forest was the beginnings of a kidnap for ransom economy that we're seeing growing at an exponential rate today.
Laura: Those girls were kidnapped from a small town called Chibok and they were taken by an Islamic terrorist group known as Boko Haram.
Drew: Boko Haram means in the language of Hausa it basically means Western education is forbidden.
Laura: That's our colleague Drew Hinshaw. He says in the early 2000s, Boko Haram's ideology started as a backlash to Western values. He says, you'd hear the group things like-
Drew: We don't want to live in a Western system. We don't want to live in a democracy. We don't want to live in a former colony called Nigeria. There were men who'd gone to university and have walked out of university and set their diplomas on fire. Just feeling like this university, this education isn't going to get me a job. It's worthless. All it did was brainwash me with Western ideas.
Laura: Boko Haram embraced violence, recruiting disillusioned, young man, training them into soldiers and building up an arsenal of weapons. Under the leadership of a man named Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram threw grenades into beer gardens, bombed churches and attacked schools. They killed teachers and they lit classrooms on fire. So fearing attacks, many schools closed. In February 2014, when the group of Boko Haram fighters came to that all girls boarding school in the small Northern town of Chibok, they weren't planning to kidnap anyone. In fact, they'd assumed that the students had been sent home and that the school would be empty.
Joe Parkinson: Boko Haram actually came to steal a brick making machine. They knew that this school was one of the few places for many, many miles around that had this piece of equipment that they needed. They were welcoming new recruits into the forest, into their bases. They needed to build housing. The only reason they went to that school on that night was to take a brick making machine. And when they found the girls there, they was shocked.
Laura: The men didn't know what to do with the hundreds of girls that they'd found.
Joe Parkinson: Some of the guys wanted to barricade them inside that dormitory and burn it down. Others said we should let them go. And they can tell everyone that we were here. And then the commander said, no, we're not going to do that. We're going to take them to the forest, because Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, he'll know what to do with them.
Laura: So they bundled them onto trucks and took them into the forest. Once the girls had been kidnapped, their parents expected the Nigerian authorities to find them, but days passed and that didn't happen. Without action, a small group of campaigners and parents began to hold protests, calling on the government to find the missing girls.
Drew: They held protests in the capitol of Abuja, 30, 40 people, including some of the parents all dressed in red chanting, bring back our girls.
Laura: These kinds of protests went on for weeks.
Lead protestor: What are we saying?
Protestors: All we are saying, bring back our girls.
Lead protestor: What are we saying?
Protestors: Right now. All we are saying.
Laura: While these protests were going on, something unexpected happened.
Drew: And then what really changed it, I think was when it started to catch fire on Twitter.
Laura: The protesters had begun posting on social media, using the hashtag, bring back our girls. And eventually the local movement around this hashtag got a small writeup on an entertainment website. A website that happened to be owned by the hip hop mogul who founded Def Jam records.
Joe Parkinson: Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul, was on a yacht in the Caribbean reading Twitter and saw the hashtag, bring back our girls. He then retweeted it. And within hours, some of the top names in hip hop and R&B had tweeted it.
Drew: The rapper common Mary J. Blige, rapper Young Jeezy, Justin Timberlake, Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres.
Joe Parkinson: Within two days, it had gone into Hollywood and then into politics. Hillary Clinton had tweeted it. And three days later, the most famous tweet of all.
Mitchelle Obama: In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters.
Joe Parkinson: Michelle Obama, standing in the diplomatic room of the White House, holding the placard card, bring back our girls.
Laura: And with that, the hashtag blew up around the world.
Joe Parkinson: For a moment, the plight of these girls was the biggest story in the world and they were the world's most famous hostages.
Laura: And Boko Haram became the world's most famous hostage takers. At first Abubakar Shekau, the group's leader, hadn't been sure what to do with the girls.
Joe Parkinson: He couldn't turn them into fighters. He had to feed them, which is costly. He wasn't really sure what the value was, but this is one of the ironies of this whole situation, which is that the organization that understood the value of this hashtag the most that played it the most to their advantage was Boko Haram and Abubakar Shekau. It wasn't until the story started to become an international sensation that Shekau understood that he actually had something incredibly valuable and that he could leverage these young women and their fate to make Boko Haram famous across the world.
Laura: So Boko Haram held on to the girls and within weeks, the bring back our girls movement had led to enough outcry that international governments started taking action.
Joe Parkinson: All told, seven of the world's most powerful militaries, either deployed or kind of gave their lent their assets to this hunt to find the young women. And at the beginning, there was a lot of optimism and a lot of momentum about what this effort could achieve. There was a very strong consensus among powerful nations. There was intelligence capability, the world's most sophisticated drones. There were spies and hostage negotiators.
Laura: But even with all of these efforts, the drones and the spies, and the intelligence, the search went nowhere.
Joe Parkinson: These billions of dollars effort succeeded in finding precisely no girls. They failed. The campaign that began with so much fanfare, actually fizzled out in a way that most people never even knew that it had concluded because it wasn't successful.
Laura: Meanwhile, as the weeks dragged into months, the girls from Chibok had no idea, they were getting so much international attention.
Naomi Adama: (foreign language).
Laura: Naomi Adamu was one of the kidnapped students. She described life in Boko Haram captivity to Drew and Joe. And she said that during much of her time with Boko Haram, she was forced to do hard manual labor often without enough food or water. And some of her classmates didn't survive their captivity.
Naomi Adama: (foreign language).
Laura: Boko Haram was trying to convert Naomi and the other girls to the group's extreme interpretation of Islam and convince them to marry their members.
Drew: These young women were coerced using hunger, beatings, a lack of shelter. They were told if you marry one of us and adopt our ideology, we will give you shelter. We will give you food. You'll have drinking water. Some of these girls were drinking mud at one point. Some of them were coerced into doing so, but more than a hundred were not. They held firm. And they did that for three years. They were starving by the end, they were starving and their captors said, if you want to eat, just adopt our religion and "marry one of us," but they refused. And those that refused were more easily free.
Laura: After the Twitter inspired rescue missions failed, a small international team of hostage negotiators worked to strike a deal with Boko Haram. So three years after they were kidnapped, many of the girls were freed in exchange for five jailed militants and a ransom of 3 million euros, paid by the Nigerian government. The government has consistently denied paying the ransom, but multiple eye witnesses, including several hostages told Joe and Drew that they saw the money change hands.
Joe Parkinson: It's not like there's a ledger here. It's not like the money came from a transparent budget where we can track it. The government is always going to deny it because they fear the precedent that it sets. Handing over money, in this case to Boko Haram.
Drew: Early on, some of our best sources said, oh, it was in a black bag.
Joe Parkinson: We spoke to the people who at the scene and handed over the black bag, which was a particular type of zip up a holdall that contained the cash.
Drew: Years later, we were looking at a picture of the exchange and we realize, oh, there's a black bag right there in the picture. One of the guys is holding a black backpack and in the backpack were millions of euros that were delivered in high denomination notes.
Laura: In the end 103 girls were released through the negotiations, but 112 are still missing. And this alleged payment, those 3 million euros that went to get the girls back. It started something new, something much bigger, that is currently touching hundreds and hundreds of families across Nigeria: an entire kidnapping industry. That's after the break. In the years that followed the Chibok girls kidnapping, Boko Haram continued to make the news with all kinds of violent attacks across Nigeria.
Reporter: As Boko Haram swept through their villages, Nigerians fled here in there thousands. Now the camp is at more than double capacity.
Reporter 2: Boko Haram's biggest raid on my degree in 18 months has left at least 13 dead. Police say two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the town of Biu in Borno State.
Laura: In 2017, after the girls were released, Joe and Drew were in the capital city of Abuja, reporting on an increase in Boko Haram attacks.
Joe Parkinson: We walked into the office of the government minister and he was standing there looking at the daily newspapers and on every single one of the front page was Boko Haram blast kills dozens. Boko Haram kidnapping takes dozens. And it was a kind of litany of these new attacks of Boko Haram. And I sat there and I asked him, "Why are we seeing this huge upsurge in attacks?" And he said, "Because we paid them millions of euros for the Chibok girls."
Laura: After the Chibok kidnapping, the Nigerian government, wasn't able to stop Boko Haram to bring them to justice or limit their violence. Instead with the money that they'd made from the kidnapping, Boko Haram was able to grow their ranks with more soldiers and more weapons. The kidnapping had been a great business opportunity. In fact, it all worked so well being paid by the government and using it to grow their operations across the whole region that other people saw this and said, I want that kind of money too. Especially at a moment when Nigeria's economy was crumbling.
Joe Parkinson: You have an economy that's not providing jobs. You have a huge amount of young people. And particularly young men that often have very limited education and they are being, kind of with no other options being seduced into joining these groups. These are criminal groups who see this as a way of making money.
Laura: Since Boko Haram, profited from the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, taking hostages and asking for ransom has become big business.
Joe Parkinson: Boko Haram started this for ideological reasons, but what's happening now is not ideological. It's financial.
Laura: And there's something about Nigeria that makes operating a kidnapping business, more straightforward. How easy it is to launder money there.
Drew: Nigeria is surrounded by former French colonies and all of those countries, French speaking countries use what's called the (CFA), which is pegged to the Euro. You can almost walk into any business in Cameroon or Niger or Benin and pay with Euro's. Then you can definitely easily go to an exchange, a foreign exchange bureau and just dump a sack full of euros and get a sack full of (CFA) that you can buy anything with. And there's really no money laundering controls around that. It's just cash for cash transaction happens every day all over French-speaking west Africa. I mean, it's fantastic if you want to launder money.
Laura: For the past several years, these new groups have primarily focused on replicating what happened to the Chibok girls. They've kidnapped large groups of school children and demanded ransoms. And those ransoms often get paid. That's what happened to Habiba, who you heard from at the beginning of the episode.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Laura: On her fourth morning in the forest, the kidnappers woke up Habiba and her classmates and walked them to a village where they were loaded onto vehicles and driven home. This time, it was the state government that had paid the ransom, exchanging the school girls for money and jailed members of the kidnappers group. And just like it had happened with the Chibok girls, the government denied handing over the money. Though, the kidnappers told Habiba and the other girls that their ransom had been paid.
Habiba: (foreign language).
Laura: Habiba and her father were part of a new wave of kidnapping and ransom as well as seizing school children, kidnappers are now also attacking hospitals, taking doctors, nurses, and even newborn babies, or even just villagers like Habiba's father, who was also eventually released. Joe and Drew's reporting shows that in an effort to end this cycle, the Nigerian government has instructed all state governors to stop paying ransoms. They refuse to negotiate with the kidnappers and say their parents and family members must not either, but Joe says the system is now so entrenched that some ransoms are still being paid by families.
Joe Parkinson: And although the state government is not paying ransoms, the parents and other groups still are. Because at the end of the day, you would, if your child has been kidnapped and the state is not going to guarantee their safety or the state is not even going to go into talks with the kidnappers, you're going to do everything you can to get your child back.
Laura: But in a country where many people are subsisting on just a few dollars a day, especially in rural areas, the numbers that kidnappers are asking for are out of reach.
Joe Parkinson: And when kidnap are requesting $50,000, $75,000, a hundred thousand dollars to free someone's child, what that means in real terms is like a average wage earner in the West having to fork out several million dollars.
Laura: So what is the Nigerian government doing or saying with all of this going on?
Joe Parkinson: Well, the short answer is not enough. The situation has become so bad that I think in some ways the government tries to not respond or acknowledge all of these attacks, because it's just too humiliating. It's too embarrassing. And it would mean a recognition that they no longer are in charge of the security and they can no longer guarantee the security of their citizens in large parts of this country. They haven't been able to stop the search. They haven't been able to put the genie back in the bottle. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. In many ways, it's Africa's most important country. From a security perspective, from an economic perspective, it's Africa's biggest oil producer. And it's no exaggeration to say the parts of the kind of glue that hold the country together are starting to become undone. Can the state survive and hold together in the face of these growing intensifying security challenges. And I think most people believe that the government is really not up to it.
Ryan: That's all for today, Friday, August 6th. Joe Andrew's book, by the way, is called, Bring Back Our Girls. The astonishing untold story of the survival and rescue of Nigeria's missing school girls. The journal is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. Your hosts are Kate Linebaugh and me Ryan Knutson. The show is produced by Catherine Brewer, (inaudible) Curry, Annie Minoff, Laura Morris, Afeef Nessouli, Rikky Novetsky, Enrique Perez de la Rosa, Sarah Platt, Willa Rubin, Matthew Sherman, Matthew Schilts, and Annie-Rose Strasser. Our engineers are Griffin Tanner, and Nathan Singhapok. Our theme music is by So Wiley. Additional music this week from Catherine Anderson, Marcus Bagala, Bobby Lord, Emma Munger and Blue Dot Sessions. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka. Thanks for listening. See you Monday.
Kate Linebaugh is the co-host of The Journal. She has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 15 years, most recently as the deputy U.S. news coverage chief. Kate started at the Journal in Hong Kong, stopping in Detroit and coming to New York in 2011. As a reporter, she covered everything from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the 2004 Asian tsunami, from Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall to General Electric. She holds a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and went back to campus in 2007 for a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
Ryan Knutson is the co-host of The Journal. Previously, he spent more than four years in the newsroom covering the wireless industry, and was responsible for a string of scoops including Verizon’s $130 billion buyout of Vodafone’s stake in their joint venture, Sprint and T-Mobile’s never ending courtship and a hack of the 911 emergency system that spread virally on Twitter. He was also a regular author of A-heds, including one about millennials discovering TV antennas. Previously, he reported for ProPublica, PBS Frontline and OPB, the NPR affiliate station in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Beaverton, Ore. and graduated from the University of Oregon.


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