Boko Haram, ransoms, and Britain’s dilemma in helping the #bringbackourgirls cause

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How is Nigeria going to get its kidnapped schoolgirls back? It’s been more than six weeks now since an estimated 200 pupils were snatched by the Islamist group, Boko Haram, and ever since, there’s been a wealth of competing claims about possible solutions. None of them, it should be said, are particularly palatable for those who want a clean, morally-satisfying ending to this story.

As we’ve reported in The Telegraph, anyone who thinks the girls can be rescued by force has probably been reading too many Andy McNab books. Even if Western special forces were used – which neither Britain nor America seem keen on – there is very little chance the girls could be rescued without a great number of them being killed first. For one thing, Boko Haram already have a track record of shooting hostages when cornered, and for another, the girls are most likely to be split up into small groups, so even if one lot were freed, retribution could be taken against another.

As such, that only really leaves some sort of negotiated release, which until recently looked likely to be some kind of prisoner swap. For the last few weeks, a source with contacts in Boko Haram has been telling me that the group is willing to exchange the girls for a number of its foot soldiers currently held in Nigerian jails. He claims that some growing numbers of Nigerians are now backing this option, following the release of the US soldier Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban leaders in Guantánamo Bay.

But it’s far from clear whether the Nigerian government is really up for a swap. While some government figures have said “all options are on the table”, others, including President Goodluck Jonathan, have publicly ruled it out.

After all, the prospect of a large group Boko Haram’s jailbirds walking free – even if they were just foot soldiers – is not something that would look good in publicity terms. Likewise, just as the Nigerian government can’t guarantee that Boko Haram will not take yet more hostages, Boko Haram can’t guarantee that the Nigerian government won’t simply rearrest the foot soldiers once it has the girls safely back.

Which, instead, leaves the option of a ransom payment – again, not a particularly savoury way of resolving things, but simpler and more easy to deny from an official point of view. Of course, such a payment would most likely run into millions of dollars, allowing the group to go on further weapons-buying sprees, and encouraging more kidnappings. But according to a senior Nigerian government source who I spoke to recently, it might work as a stopgap solution while some longer-term strategy to curb Boko Haram’s activities is worked out.

“If you’re under pressure as a government, what do you do?” the source said. “Governments can say in public that they are not going to negotiate, but in practice, this is how it is going to work. If someone has a good idea for getting the girls out for nothing, then fine, but the reality is that this is a hostage situation.”

Already, there have been a few veiled hints in public that this strategy might be deployed. In an interview with Reuters last week, Sarkin-Yaki Bello, Nigeria’s head of counter-terrorism, appeared to rule out a prisoner swap, saying “if you let them out, the terrorists get stronger”.

Bear in mind also that Boko Haram already has considerable form in kidnapping for ransom, a tactic it learned from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who have earned tens of millions of dollars from kidnapping Westerners.

Only last Sunday, two Italian priests and a Canadian nun kidnapped by Boko Haram in Cameroon were released amid reports of a “fee” being paid. Boko Haram also kidnapped seven members of a French family in northern Cameroon last year, and have been blamed for the abduction of 10 Chinese workers in the same region last month.

One interesting question, though, is the dilemma that all this poses for Britain and America. Both countries have enthusiastically hitched their wagons to the #bringbackourgirls cause, making big play of how they are sending over teams of experts in counter-terrorism and hostage negotiators to help the Nigerian government.

But while they may be happy to be seen riding like cavalry to the rescue, they are likely to be rather more squeamish if it comes to some kind of shady ransom exchange or prisoner deal. Neither Washington nor Downing Street like to be seen to be striking deals with terrorists. Indeed, Britain has a policy that explicitly prevents any of its officials being involved in anything connected to ransom payments. I’ve met families of British citizens kidnapped abroad who’ve told me that Foreign Office officials have actually left the room when any discussions of ransom payment options have come up.

It would be interesting to know, therefore, just how the British government is handling this one. If it refuses to have anything to do with a ransom payment or prisoner exchange, then its teams of experts are going to be of limited use to Nigeria. But if they do decide to help, they will effectively be party to a deal with one of the most odious terrorist groups in the world. Once again, neither option seems very palatable.

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