Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of over two hundred schoolgirls in Nigeria has once again brought the group into the international spotlight, making more urgent the questions about how to curtail its activities and the activities of other armed groups that threaten the security of Nigeria and the region. Drawing on the results of a 2013 study in six northern Nigerian states, this report addresses the question of how youth are radicalized and recruited into armed groups and what the Nigerian government and other interested actors can do to prevent it.


  • Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in May 1999, armed nonstate groups have significantly undermined the country’s internal security environment, largely using young men as foot soldiers. Among these groups, Boko Haram has grown to become a serious national, regional, and international concern. Estimates of the death toll from Boko Haram attacks since 2009 range as high as ten thousand fatalities. With Boko Haram and other groups seemingly gaining in strength, questions arise as to why young men join them in the first place and what the government and other actors can do to prevent it.
  • Surveys, interviews, and focus groups conducted in Nigeria in 2013 suggest that poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures make or contribute to making young men vulnerable to radicalization. Itinerant preachers capitalize on the situation by preaching an extreme version of religious teachings and conveying a narrative of the government as weak and corrupt. Armed groups such as Boko Haram can then recruit and train youth for activities ranging from errand running to suicide bombings.
  • To weaken the armed groups’ abilities to radicalize and recruit young men, the Nigerian government at all levels, perhaps with support from interested international actors, could institute monitoring and regulation of religious preaching; strengthen education, job training, and job creation programs; design robust programs to aid destitute children; promote peace education; and embark on an anticorruption campaign. Addressing the conditions that make it possible for insurgents to recruit young men in Nigeria can significantly diminish the strength of the insurgency, if not eliminate it altogether.

About the Report

Boko Haram is an extremist sect in Nigeria that has caused devastating damage in Northern Nigeria and threatens the stability of Nigeria as a whole. The U.S. Institute of Peace commissioned the CLEEN Foundation in Nigeria to research how Boko Haram is able to continue to recruit young men to its membership. CLEEN published a full report on its findings; this Special Report is drawn from its conclusions.

About the Author

Freedom C. Onuoha is a research fellow and currently the head of the Department of Conflict, Peacekeeping, and Humanitarian Studies at the Centre for Strategic Research and Studies of Nigeria’s National Defence College, Abuja.

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