Brides Before Bombs: Nigerian City Fights Terrorism With Mass Weddings

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Aminu Abubakar / AFP / Getty Images

Brides sit on benches at the palace of the emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, near the central mosque in the city of Kano, Nigeria, on May 15, 2012

In countries around the world, campaigns against terrorism have largely focused on the hard challenges of security, employing intelligence services and specialized military and police units to take the lead. But to complement those efforts, counterterrorist strategies also look at the root causes of radicalization itself. Security services have tried community engagement and monitoring of religious groups — and in some cases governments have even encouraged weddings to bring alienated young men back into the fold. Now, Muslim elders in northern Nigeria are testing that tactic on a massive scale.

Leaders in Kano — the second largest metropolitan area in Nigeria with about 2.8 million people — are helping to fund mass weddings to counter a plethora of single women and prevent the radicalization of young men. The effort is spearheaded by the Kano State Hisbah Board, the bureau that implements Islamic law in the state. According to the Wall Street Journal, 1,350 couples in Kano have been married in mass weddings in the past year and a half; more than a thousand more are scheduled to be married, and there is a waiting list with 5,000 people.

There are economic incentives: the state gives grooms $60 to pay a dowry and brides get some supplies for the home and money to start a business. In many cases, couples come together and apply to get married, but the government will also play matchmaker, asking a man or woman what they desire in a spouse, then helping to track down a suitable candidate. The Journal reports that thousands of women in a nearby state asked to be fixed up with husbands. “When you have a good wife,” Nabahan Usman, deputy commander of special services at the Kano State Hisbah Board told the Journal, “why should you think of going for terrorism?”

Leaders in Kano are turning to mass marriage to help stem the violence from an ongoing struggle between police and government forces and a group known as Boko Haram (which is Arabic for “Western education is forbidden”), a radical jihadist group with al-Qaeda ties operating in northern Nigeria. Since 2009, when the conflict escalated, more than 3,000 people have been killed.

Encouraging marriage is a counterterrorist tactic that has been tried before. In an effort to rehabilitate former jihadists and reintegrate them into mainstream society, Saudi Arabia started the Care Rehabilitation Center outside Riyadh, a sort of Betty Ford Center for extremists. In 2007, Scott Macleod, TIME’s former Middle East bureau chief, visited the center and described the vocational training, psychological counseling and curriculum designed by religious scholars from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. After their release, alumni of the center were given a monthly stipend of about $700 and $20,000 for a wedding. “Having children, the thinking goes, lessens the temptation to rejoin the jihad,” Macleod wrote. It’s not clear how successful the program has been, and to what extent encouraging marriage was a factor, but U.S. and Saudi officials have argued that the center has a very low recidivism rate.

In the past few years, Indonesia has waged what TIME’s Hannah Beech calls “one of the world’s most determined campaigns against terrorism,” including forming a special police unit known as Detachment 88, which has been trained by the American FBI and CIA. Between its founding in 2003 and 2010, when Beech spent time with the unit in training, Detachment 88 had captured more than 400 terrorism suspects. To encourage them to renounce violence and rehabilitate, the government paid for their children’s school tuition, and if they were single, had prison weddings paid for by the government so they would have a wife upon release.

The success of such efforts is hard to quantify. There is little independent data on radicalism prevention and terrorist rehabilitation; judgments on such programs mostly come from governments of the respective countries, which often put a positive spin on their efforts. But studies over the past decade have found that the radicalization process is far from predictable. “There is no profile of the type of person who becomes a terrorist,” a 2011 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law argued. “The process by which a person embraces violence is fluid, making it nearly impossible to predict who will move from espousing ‘radical’ views to committing violent acts.”

Where marriage fits into the picture is an even murkier issue. In a comprehensive study of radicalization, Britain’s Security Service, commonly known as MI5, found few consistent trends underlying the radicalization of terrorists in the U.K. A 2008 classified research document, seen by the Guardian newspaper, rejected the notion that terrorists were all religious zealots or lone individuals with no ties. The majority were men in their early to mid-20s, but “a small but not insignificant minority first become involved in violent extremism at over the age of 30,” the Guardian reported. The majority over 30 had relationships and children, leading MI5 to conclude: “It is wrong to assume that someone with a wife and children is less likely to commit acts of terrorism.”

Most of the states in northern Nigeria, including Kano, have politically Islamist governments that encourage adherence to Islamic mores. Marriage there may be successful in helping prevent future radicalization. But, if not, Nigeria’s ongoing campaign against Boko Haram — an offensive whose heavy-handedness has been attacked by critics — will go on.