Terror group Boko Haram tried to open a door Monday to negotiating the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in a video demanding its members be freed from prison.
While Nigeria quickly and publicly rejected the ultimatum, recent history and the level of attention around the case mean a different story might play out behind the scenes.
Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said that officials in Nigeria and Cameroon have a history of negotiating with Boko Haram.
“They have always given back prisoners and given behind the scenes money,” he told NBC News.
Nigerian authorities are believed to be holding hundreds of suspected Boko Haram fighters. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, demanded their release in the video, which was released through French news agency AFP and which U.S. officials believe is genuine.
"These girls have become Muslims," Shekau said in the 17-minute recording. "We will never release them until after you release our brethren."
While countries assisting the search operation — including the U.S. and U.K. — publicly refuse to negotiate with kidnappers and terrorists, the international outcry over the case of the missing schoolgirls could create too much pressure for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to ignore, paving the way for a negotiated end to the kidnapping rather than a risky and potentially dangerous rescue operation.
“People in the media, schools, the Obamas — all these people are saying bring back the girls, and Abubakar Shekau is saying yes, here you can,” Zenn said. “Boko Haram guys know what’s going on.”
He said he believes there will be backchannel negotiations involving intermediaries.
If a ransom is involved, tribal elders would most likely be used to facilitate any exchange, Zenn said, referring to a group of local leaders trusted by both Boko Haram and the government, used as something of an “escrow system” for ransoms.
"This would be pretty roundly condemned as encouraging Boko Haram and other extremist groups in Nigeria and likely counterproductive in the long run."
“They’re intermediaries — it’s a well-worn track,” he explained.
However, a deal to secure girls’ freedom could come at an incredibly high price, according to analysts.
In one previous kidnapping case, Boko Haram received more than $3 million, according to Reuters, for the release of a French family kidnapped in northern Cameroon.
The international attention around the missing schoolgirls and reported ransoms in other cases, like that of the French family kidnapped in Cameroon, could see Boko Haram asking for tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s going to mean the release of dozens of Boko Haram murderers, it’s likely going to cost money behind the scenes and Boko Haram will just use that money and deploy any released prisoners to carry out more attacks,” Zenn said. “It’s a win-win for Boko Haram.”
In any case, the political consequences of negotiating with a terrorist organization could stymie any talks before they get underway.
“Although Nigeria has shown a slight willingness to talk with Boko Haram outside of a specific event, this has been very limited and there have been real pressures within Nigeria not to negotiate,” according to Michael Leiter, a counterterrorism analyst for NBC News.
Leiter said that, given the U.S. stance that countries should not negotiate with kidnappers, he believes it is unlikely there will be serious discussions with Boko Haram to release the girls.
“This would be pretty roundly condemned as encouraging Boko Haram and other extremist groups in Nigeria and likely counterproductive in the long run,” he said. “Not to mention making President Jonathan look quite weak.”
On Monday, the Nigerian government said it was mulling "all options."
"The government of Nigeria is considering all options towards freeing the girls and reuniting them with their parents," Mike Omeri, director general of the National Orientation Agency, part of the Ministry of Information, told a news conference.
First published May 12 2014, 8:55 AM