In one of the poorest regions of the world, Nigerian insurgents fight with advanced weaponry and disappear into the shadows after massive attacks. Security analysts say funding for these operations is most likely vast and varied, and the only way to permanently stop the fighting is to cut it off.
Late last year, militants bombed a police station, an army base and attacked the Nigerian air force. They left behind the bodies of two suspected Boko Haram fighters, tangled in the bicycles that residents say they were riding during the attack.
But their low-tech vehicles were deceiving, analysts say, as the Boko Haram militancy continues to evolve. Now the group appears to be awash with high-end weaponry.
“They’re starting to get their hands on high-grade equipment like artillery and things like that," said Yan St-Pierre, CEO of the Counter-Terrorism Modern Security Consulting Group. "You don’t attack the air force base and military bases without having more support either. So it’s a combination of two factors.”
Boko Haram is an Islamist militia that preaches a harsh form of Sharia law. It has been blamed for thousands of deaths in the past four-and-a-half years, in attacks on schools, churches, mosques and the government. Its more recent targets include villages and a heavily fortified northern prison.
But how, in this impoverished region, do local militants make enough money for heavy weaponry? St-Pierre says foreign militant groups, like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, may be partially funding Boko Haram, but their income likely comes from a much wider variety of sources.
“It is a very well-funded organization where it has so many sources of income including in Nigeria and that whole region," he said. "It does get money from the piracy, especially from the west coast of Africa. Drug trafficking helps, smuggling."
Boko Haram’s expenses, he adds, are considerably smaller than for a regular army. Mostly, St-Pierre says, the militants need money for weapons, which are increasingly available and cheap as unrest in other parts of Africa and the Middle East have created what he calls an arms trafficking “highway.”
Bank robberies and stealing from the Nigerian military are other ways Boko Haram has paid its bills, says Elizabeth Donnelly of the Africa Program with London policy institute Chatham House. But she cautions that it's difficult to pinpoint details of the funding, just as it is hard to know what the group stands for, how big it is or who its leaders are.
“I think on one hand as time has gone on infiltration of the group has become more difficult," she said. "I think the other thing is that actually Boko Haram seems to take steps to clear up evidence after an attack, which is also a problem.”
Before authorities can cut off Boko Haram funding, she adds, they have to find it. And doing that, Donnelly says, would go a long way toward crippling the group.
Although some security analysts say Boko Haram is internationally backed, she says even if it has international ties, Boko Haram’s interests appear to remain entirely in Nigeria.
She says this suggests that as the insurgency drags on, destroying the economy in northeastern Nigeria and scaring away residents, Boko Haram's funding may also suffer.
“If it’s funding itself and feeding itself by theft from the surrounding areas, then actually when there’s nothing left to take, that’s a serious question for the group," she said. "It would have to throw its net wider.”
Politicians and traditional leaders in Nigeria often accuse their opponents of supporting Boko Haram financially, but Donnelly says there is no hard evidence from any side that this is true.
In a speech this week, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki said amid the uncertainty, neither military might nor peace talks alone will end the violence. He called for educational and prison reform and other efforts to prevent people from joining Boko Haram in the first place.