Boko Haram has kidnapped before -- successfully

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Story highlights

  • Boko Haram demands release of its fighters for return of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls
  • Boko Haram has kidnapped before and Nigeria has conceded at least once
  • A raid on a town last year freed inmates, and Boko Haram took about a dozen hostages
  • Nigeria freed wives and children of Boko Haram members in return for the hostages

The new video released by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau makes a simple demand: He won't release the more than 200 schoolgirls his group abducted from a school northern Nigeria "until after you release our brethren."

The "brethren" he refers to include several hundred Boko Haram fighters, including key commanders, currently held in jails in Nigeria, as well as in Niger and Cameroon.

It is a demand that he has made before, and a demand that, crucially, the Nigerian government has at least once conceded.

Almost exactly a year ago, fighters from Boko Haram entered a dusty town close to the border with Cameroon. They headed for the police station, army barracks and prison buildings. The dawn raid on May 7, 2013, on the town of Bama left more than 100 people dead, including many civilians. The Boko Haram fighters freed about 100 inmates from the prison.

But -- little reported at the time -- they also abducted about a dozen women and children to use as bargaining chips, according to Jacob Zenn, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation and long-time observer of Boko Haram.

Days after the Bama raid, Boko Haram's Shekau appeared in a video that showed the hostages. He warned that if Nigerian security forces "do not release our wives and children, we will not release theirs," and the hostages would become his "servants," according to Zenn, who provided CNN a link to the video.

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According to Zenn, among the women and children allegedly held by Nigerian authorities were Shekau's wife and three children, the wife of Boko Haram's commander in the town of Kano and his children, and the wife of the group's commander in the town of Sokoto.

The tactic appears to have worked. Two weeks later, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan directed that women and children "in detention on suspicion of involvement" with Boko Haram would be freed from prison. The hostages held by Boko Haram were released or, according to the official version, "rescued" by security forces.

Zenn told CNN that altogether nearly 100 Boko Haram members and their relatives were set free -- and that Nigerian security sources told him there was a financial payoff by the government to the group to close the deal.

It's now clear that in conceding to a key Boko Haram demand, the Nigerian government was inviting more such abductions. And as Nigeria detained more of the group's members and sympathizers, Boko Haram's determination to secure their freedom increased.

The video that Shekau recorded after the Bama attack last year has striking similarities to the one obtained by Agence France Presse on Monday -- in which he demands the release of all Boko Haram members in jail in return for the freedom of more than 200 girls kidnapped last month.

Zenn said "Shekau wants all Boko Haram prisoners freed because they because they will have renewed loyalty to him, and him alone" after internal rifts in 2012 and 2013.

"And the militants freed from prison will allow Boko Haram to benefit from their bomb-making and kidnapping skills to launch new and fiercer attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon and the border region," he said.

A behind-the-scenes payment could help the group recruit members and purchase weapons, as well as buy "loyalty from tribal elders in the Nigeria-Cameroon border area," Zenn said.

Boko Haram has additional reasons to believe kidnapping can be lucrative. Early last year, a group of its fighters crossed into Cameroon and abducted a French family on safari. Shekau showed off the family -- just like he has shown off other hostages -- in video obtained by AFP in March 2013.

"We are holding them hostage because the leaders of Cameroon and Nigeria detained our women and children under inhumane conditions," he said.

After secret negotiations between Shekau and the Cameroonian government (through intermediaries), Boko Haram released the family near the Nigerian-Cameroon border -- reportedly in exchange for a $3 million ransom and the release of 16 Boko Haram prisoners held in Cameroon.

By resolving the current crisis and securing the girls' freedom, the government would likely be sowing the seeds of another. But by pursuing the military option, it could endanger the lives of many of the girls, who are thought to have been split into groups and possibly smuggled across the border into Cameroon and Chad. Even if the Nigerian military tracks down and frees one group, Boko Haram might take revenge by killing others.

As for its longer-term goals, Shekau said Boko Haram will not negotiate a cease-fire until it "brings the Nigerian government to its knees."

In terms of a political settlement in return for an end to violence, Boko Haram has not outlined its goals.

Zenn believes the group "would likely demand a de-facto Taliban-like Islamic State in some portion of northeastern Nigeria and the border region," a demand that would be unpalatable to the federal government because it would damage the already shaky integrity of Africa's most populous nation.

But Zenn said it's notable that in the latest video, the girls (at least some of whom are likely Christians) are forced to wear the hijab and that a flag behind them is typical of al Qaeda affiliates.

"The appearance of them 'unharmed' makes it look like Boko Haram is doing this for legitimate Islamic purposes to win a prisoner exchange -- as opposed to sex slavery."

In the video, Shekau states: "Everything that we are doing is in the Quran and in the Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed.)"

Many have objected to that assessment and last year a group called Civilian Joint Task Force -- set up to counter Boko Haram in northern Nigeria -- said they rescued 26 abducted women and girls, some of whom were pregnant, or had given birth, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Many girls who were rescued or had escaped were sent off by their families to distant cities like Abuja and Lagos to avoid the stigma of rape or pregnancy outside of marriage," activists said, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, residents of Maiduguri said that on several occasions, members of Boko Haram forcefully abducted several teenage girls.

HRW quoted one man who had documented such cases: "After storming into the homes and throwing sums of money at their parents, with a declaration that it was the dowry for their teenage daughter, they would take the girls away."

Another said: When we made Maiduguri "too hot" for Boko Haram, they ran away without their wives. "Now they are picking up women anywhere and using them to satisfy themselves."