Abducted schoolgirls: Is Nigeria ready to negotiate with Boko Haram?

Nigeria sent mixed messages regarding Boko Haram's proposal to exchange the schoolgirls for imprisoned terrorists. But if it does negotiate, that would follow a pattern set by many countries.

In this photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram, Monday, May 12, 2014 shows the alleged missing girls abducted from the northeastern town of Chibok. The new video purports to show dozens of abducted schoolgirls, covered in jihab and praying in Arabic. It is the first public sight of the girls since more than 300 were kidnapped from a northeastern school the night of April 14.

The Nigerian government’s mixed messaging to the Islamist extremist group holding more than 250 schoolgirls – first that it is not interested in Boko Haram’s proposed exchange of the hostages for imprisoned terrorists, then that “all options” are on the table – is just the beginning of the abduction’s resolution.

After all, governments that oppose negotiating with terrorists often end up changing their stance, some diplomatic experts say. They also point out there was a reason hostage negotiators were included in the team of experts the US sent to Nigeria last week to assist in resolving the crisis.

“A lot of countries say they won’t negotiate with terrorists, but very often it’s just a starting position,” says Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Governments tend to say they aren’t going to do it [negotiate],” he adds, “when at the same time they are in the midst of their tactical calculations about the many different elements” of a hostage negotiation.

The leader of Boko Haram released a video Monday purporting to show dozens of the abducted schoolgirls in full veils and reciting prayers. In the 17-minute video the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, says the girls have converted to Islam. He further asserts they will only be released as part of a deal for militants being held by the Nigerian government.

“We will never release [the girls] until after you release our brethren,” Mr. Shekau says. The Nigerian government has detained hundreds of suspected Boko Haram militants, and in recent months fighters from the group have stormed a number of prisons in an effort to free detained comrades.

Some Nigerian officials initially rejected any exchange involving a release of detained terrorists. Later Monday, however, a senior government official with the information ministry said the government was considering “all options” for securing the girls’ release.

That followed claims by some Nigerian sources over the weekend that the government has established “indirect” contact with Boko Haram. Officials in the north where the girls were kidnapped reportedly told journalists they understood some communication was under way between the captors and the government.

Whether or not that is true, specialists like Mr. White say such contact would follow a pattern set by countries that insist they will not negotiate with terrorists.

One example often cited is Israel, which officially refuses to negotiate with terrorists, but which is known to have worked out exchanges with groups, such as Hamas, that it considers terrorist organizations. In 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped by Hamas.

“Countries indeed do it – and then often find themselves subject to criticism from countries that do it, too,” says White. Israel is the latest country to offer assistance to Nigeria in freeing the girls.

The US lists Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. But last week both the White House and the State Department said that hostage negotiators would be part of the team of experts dispatched to Nigeria to help in the schoolgirls’ rescue.

At the State Department Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki suggested the US would defer to Nigeria in the handling of the schoolgirls' abduction. But she also noted US opposition to any actions rewarding kidnappers for their actions.

"Nigeria is in the lead. We are simply supporting their efforts," Ms. Psaki said, before adding that "as you know" US policy is "to deny kidnappers the benefits of their criminal acts, including ransoms or concessions."

A factor that can cause countries that officially reject negotiating with terrorists to turn around and do so is public pressure, experts say. That is especially true in democracies like Israel, they add, where domestic political pressure can’t be disregarded.

What makes a “no negotiating with terrorists” policy so problematic for most governments, White says, is that “in order to mean it you have to have an accompanying policy that the hostages are expendable.”

The history of the schoolgirls’ abduction suggests to some regional experts that the Nigerian government might have intended to keep to a no-negotiating stance. The girls were abducted in a raid on a school in the country’s northeast corner on April 14, but the mass kidnapping only gained international notoriety this month after Shekau released a video threatening to sell the girls “in the market.”

Nigerians, including families of the kidnapping victims, complained of indifference on the part of the government until the girls became an international cause.

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