By Paul Baines, Professor of Political Marketing

Using persuasion techniques to recruit new members has long been a key tactic of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. The Islamic extremist group based in north-east Nigeria, has been using cash loans to recruit members to spy on security agency operations for them as it seeks to maintain its numbers after the Nigerian government forces cracked down on some of their criminal activities. Their cash loan tactic follows previous Boko Haram approaches such as attacks on schools and the kidnapping of girls. Why do these cash loans work? And why don’t the ‘victims’ recognise the group’s tactics?

In psychology, reciprocity is a powerful mechanism. Most of us can relate to the idea that if we receive something from someone, we feel almost a need to ‘return the favour’, and are likely to do so. In this case, things are more serious. Refusing a cash loan from Boko Haram is likely to result in death. So, the group is using ‘fear appeal’. Fear appeal is the practice where an offer is made and the only alternative to accepting it is serious danger, akin to the Italian mafia making ‘an offer you can’t refuse’. In fact, most terrorist groups maximise their publicity by generating fear of crime and disruption to lives, and often cause mass casualties, as we have seen in Paris, Turkey and Brussels in recent times. In Boko Haram’s case, the way to avoid the threat of death and potentially even long-term abuse against the victim’s family, is to accept the loan. In psychology, this is called adaptive behaviour to mitigate the threat, or, danger control. Rejection of the offer requires fear control.

On the flip side, UK police forces have also been known to use fear appeal to benefit citizens and encourage them to report suspicious activity. The police play a key role in delivering such reassurance communications to the public to inform them that they are working to disrupt both individuals and groups of criminals. These types of campaigns have been delivered by the City of London Police, Police Scotland during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the British Transport Police.

These forces have all implemented ‘Project Servator’ (Latin for ‘watcher/observer’), using the reassurance communications approach. Servator involve deploying uniformed and non-uniformed officers, and dogs, horses, vehicles, closed circuit television (CCTV) and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology. These tactics are deployed in locations potentially subject to terrorist or criminal attacks, such as the Houses of Parliament and Celtic Park. Here, police tactically engaged with the public, ‘recruiting’ them, by encouraging them to be vigilant and report suspicious behaviour.

Do such campaigns work? In 2014, the number of calls to emergency services made did increase during the Servator period in London. Based on surveys, a majority of the general public do report being reassured by the Servator campaign and more likely to report suspicious activity, of fundamental importance in the current security environment.

So, might the Nigerian government launch a sister version of Project Servator to deter Boko Haram? They could criminalise the acceptance of their loans, develop their own legitimate loan assistance programme and set up a system of reporting ‘dodgy loan’ offers, using a social marketing campaign (the tagline might be ‘Been offered a ‘loan’ you can’t refuse? Call XYZ anonymously’), so that security forces can respond accordingly. Such an activity might help to close down one of the many tactics used by Boko Haram to terrorise the Nigerian people.

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