What role for US in efforts to rescue Nigeria's kidnapped girls?

US pledges its help to try to save almost 300 girls kidnapped in Nigeria last month by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Military aid is not likely, but assistance with intelligence and crisis management could be.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Women attend a demonstration calling on government to rescue kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, May 5, 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry, himself the father of two daughters, pledges that the US will do 'everything possible' to help return the captives to their families.

When Secretary of State John Kerry, himself the father of two daughters, condemns as an "unconscionable crime" a Nigerian terrorist group’s kidnapping of hundreds of girls and pledges that the US will do “everything possible” to help return the captives to their families, there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity.

It’s also true that the United States, which already provides some counterterrorism assistance and training to Nigeria, is carefully assessing just how much more help and what kind of assistance it should provide. Nigeria's government has seemed uncaring and inept in the wake of the mass kidnapping, and it, too, stands accused of committing atrocities in the name of security, particularly in the north, where the girls were snatched by the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram.

The US can help by highlighting the criminal action and by prodding the Nigerian government to make the girls’ rescue an urgent priority, some Africa experts say. But the US also must take into account the conditions that made the kidnapping of more than 300 girls possible.

“If these girls are being carted around in convoys of vehicles and the [Nigerian] military is unable or unwilling to do anything about it, there are reasons for that,” says Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington. Noting the “information vacuum” Nigeria's government is confronting in the area, she says, “it’s very unlikely that none of the local populations know where these girls are.” The reluctance to talk, she adds, “is an indication of the deep distrust the local population feels toward the national leadership.”

Nigerians and international human rights organizations have accused Nigeria's military of making mass arrests and committing summary executions in its battle against Boko Haram, whose signature activity in recent years has been to attack secondary schools and to massacre students and faculty.

The group’s name means “Western education is sinful.” The US has been concerned for years that Boko Haram is gaining strength. Another worry is that the group could become an affiliate of Al Qaeda in a country that in 2013 was the eighth-largest supplier of oil to the US.

On Monday, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, released a video in which he claimed responsibility for the mass abduction and pledged to sell the girls “in the marketplace.” Since the mass kidnapping of more than 300 girls April 15, reports have trickled out of abductors themselves purchasing “brides” for less than $20 and of the Christians among the victims being forced to convert to Islam.

As many as 276 girls are believed to be still held captive after a large group managed to escape. US officials and other experts say they assume some of the girls have already been taken across borders into neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

The State Department announced Monday that a senior official would be dispatched to Nigeria to address the crisis with the government, but it disclosed few details other than to specify that US assistance is unlikely to include a military component.

Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, is expected to travel to the capital, Abuja, by the end of the week. It was not clear Monday what other US agencies might participate in the trip.

US involvement could help on several fronts, says the Atlantic Council’s Ms. Bruton. The US, which “clearly has its eyes on northern Nigeria and the activities of Boko Haram,” could provide useful intelligence, she says. In addition, neighboring countries worried about Nigerian military activity might be relieved by the US involvement.

"Clearly, neighboring countries would not be thrilled at the prospect of Nigerian soldiers storming across the border,” she says, “so one could imagine the US being very helpful with the neighbors.”

All that said, a US pledge to do “everything possible” is not likely to be the key to setting the girls free.

More than two years ago, Bruton notes, the US pledged to help Uganda and the Central African Republic end the scourge of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, which were terrorizing a remote corner of the CAR and Congo. President Obama sent in 100 special forces soldiers at the end of 2011 – and they are still there, helping local militaries hunt down the warlord wanted since 2007 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The southeastern corner of the CAR and northern Nigeria are similar areas in that they are remote and abut several countries where marauding armies can slip away and hide, Bruton says. But she also notes that in both cases horrifically violent groups have managed to retain a certain amount of local support that helps them evade capture.

In helping Nigeria try to recover the kidnapped girls, the US will want to avoid too close an association with the Nigerian military, she says. "You don’t want a US face on the Nigerian human rights situation,” Bruton says.

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