Nigeria's captive girls: Calls begin for US military to join rescue campaign

The US is sending a team, including military personnel, to Nigeria to help coordinate the response to the Boko Haram kidnappings of almost 250 school-age girls. Some in Washington urge a deeper US military footprint.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Women attend a demonstration calling on the government to rescue kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday May 5. Their plight – and the failure of the Nigerian military to find them – has drawn international attention. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping and threatened to sell the girls. The British and US governments have expressed concern over the fate of the missing students, and protests have erupted in major Nigerian cities and in New York.

US officials and lawmakers are quickly concluding that America's military should be doing more to help rescue hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by a terrorist group. What is the point of having a US Africa Command, they say, if not to counter such attacks?

The girls were snatched in mid-April by Boko Haram, which has threatened to sell them for $12 each. The Islamist terrorist group struck again Tuesday, taking another eight teenage girls from a Nigerian village. Its leaders vow to continue kidnapping girls and selling them into slavery to punish any women who are seeking an education – and the families who support them.

“I abducted your girls,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video in which he claimed credit for the latest attack. “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace.” 

US officials said Tuesday that a team of military personnel, law enforcement, and hostage negotiators will go to Nigeria, on a timetable not yet specified, to advise the government there. The team will include an interagency coordination cell that will operate out of the US Embassy and advise the Nigerian government on logistics, intelligence, and communications, says Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, a Pentagon spokesman. 

“At this point, we have no inclination to deploy troops. It’s just a planning cell,” adds a US military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There will be military participation, but you can count them on two hands.”

Some US lawmakers want to see more. They called on the Obama White House to send, as well, military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which can include drones. 

“More than three weeks have passed since the [first] abduction, but little progress has been made towards freeing the girls,” Sens. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota said in a joint statement Tuesday. “This outrage demands a significant worldwide response.” 

The senators, in a letter to President Obama, noted that US aerial and satellite surveillance “could make a significant difference in [Nigeria's] ability to liberate the captives,” citing as a precedent the use of such technology in the hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

They also called on the administration to deepen its cooperation with Nigerian counterparts.

“Should the US be doing more? Yes, but it can’t do anything without the invitation and willingness of the Nigerians,” says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

Nigeria has accepted the US offer to send an advisory team to help. But Nigerian officials may find unpalatable a contingent of US boots on the ground. They are more accustomed to playing a regional peacekeeping role than asking for outside assistance, says Mr. Downie, who in the past has advised US Africa Command.

Nigeria, moreover, is not desperate for drones, he adds. “I don’t see this as a technology or asset issue. Nigeria has developed its own drones – they aren’t as sophisticated as the US has, but it’s what they do with the intelligence they generate that’s the most important thing.”

Nigeria's government could use help, however, coordinating its various national security agencies and getting them to share information. “There have been several instances with Boko Haram attacks that they could have pieced together” had there been intelligence-sharing, Downie says. 

Soon after taking the helm of US Africa Command one year ago, Gen. David Rodriguez warned that Boko Haram bore close monitoring by the US military. He cited it as of particular concern because its links to terrorist groups in the region are mushrooming.

“We’re very concerned about that because those connections expand opportunities, expand capabilities,” he told the Voice of America last June. “And Boko Haram is a very, very violent network. It is one that has had a very, very negative impact on the northern part of Nigeria, as well as [abutting] Niger and Chad. And it crosses [national] borders.”

Last year the US military began setting up a drone base in Niger, Nigeria's northern neighbor. Rodriguez has said the US military's authorization to wage the war on terror gives it latitude to pursue Boko Haram operatives in Nigeria. 

In discussing drawbacks to deploying sizable numbers of US forces to that area, Rodriguez pointed to “the history of African nations, the colonialism.” That perception of imperialism, he said, is one reason “why we should not go in there in force and everything else, and just use a small footprint with creative and innovative solutions.” 

That said, dismantling Boko Haram is “going to take a coordinated effort” by many nations, he said in the VOA report last June, “as well as some good decisions and good thought process [by] the Nigerian government.”

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