Nigeria school attack: why US hasn't sent Special Forces to rescue girls

Offers of US military assistance are 'politically dicey' for Nigeria, experts say, and intelligence suggests the schoolgirls have been split up, making their rescue complicated even for Special Forces.

Mark Reis/The Colorado Springs Gazette/AP
Karilyn Coates, 10, joins others in a candlelight vigil for the more than 300 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday. More than 250 girls are still missing, and US officials and agents are arriving in Nigeria to help the government rescue them.

The United States is sending eight military personnel to Nigeria to offer intelligence assistance following the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls, but if Washington were serious about helping find them, why not offer up a contingent of US Special Operations Forces to help do the job?

That is the question posed by some lawmakers, who note that such rescue and extraction missions are, after all, a Special Ops specialty. And how tricky could it be, they add, to overpower a brutal, but military undisciplined, rebel group?

“I would like to see Special Forces deployed to help rescue these young girls,” Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine told CNN, adding that she would think Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan “would welcome Special Forces coming in.”

That has not been the case, say top US military officials. “We had made repeated offers of assistance, and it was only just this week when the Nigerians accepted the offer of this coordination cell,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said Friday.

The US military personnel in that cell will include eight US troops being sent to Nigeria in addition to another 10 service members that were already working in the embassy.

These are US troops trained in intelligence collection and analysis, Rear Admiral Kirby said, and they also will work out of the embassy. “We’re not talking about US military operations in Nigeria to go find these girls,” Kirby said. “That’s not the focus here.”

But specially trained personnel, such as Special Operations Forces (SOF), could provide some much-needed expertise, some argue. 

“Special Ops would give us a deeper understanding for what’s going on,” says retired Lt. Col. Rudy Atallah, former Africa Counterterrorism director at the Pentagon. Such forces, he adds, would also help to “figure out how to mitigate the threat.” 

At the same time, that prospect is “politically dicey” in Nigeria. “We’ve always looked to the Nigerians for assistance,” which has included peacekeeping operations through the Africa Union, notes Mr. Atallah, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “Now all of a sudden they have an insurgency that has been growing and taking root in the north, and it’s an embarrassment for them.”

There is also a concern that the Nigerian military does not prioritize human rights when they are pursuing targets, and that innocent civilians suffer as a result. “Nigeria has been extremely heavy-handed,” Atallah adds. “And that has led to Boko Haram getting some sympathetic support” from civilians who fear the government almost as much as the rebel group.

The Nigerian government “has been promising for months that it would adopt a softer approach,” says Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. These promises have yet to come to fruition, and the concern is that the US military equipment that Nigeria is requesting could be used “to carry out their hard-fisted approach,” she notes. “The United States doesn’t want to put an American face on the brutality of the Nigerian military.” 

For now, the US troops – most of whom have already arrived in Nigeria – will begin doing “gap analysis,” which will include examining “what capabilities the Nigerians are applying to the effort [to find the girls] and what gaps they may need and additional help and/or resources they may need,” Kirby says. 

Intelligence indicates that many of the girls have been split up into small groups and moved to different locations, and these locations are remote and difficult to penetrate.

"Instead of searching for one group of 250 girls, law enforcement and the military are likely looking for 25 groups of 10 girls or 50 groups of five girls," notes Geoff Porter, an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, in a paper for the academy's Combating Terrorism Center. "This poses an enormous challenge and diminishes the possibility of a dramatic rescue that will bring this crisis to a quick close."

These are points strikingly illustrated by US military efforts to help capture Joseph Kony, Uganda leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face war crimes charges.

The US deployed 100 Special Forces troops there in 2011 to help thousands of African troops in their search for him, to no avail. Three years later, the Pentagon announced in March that it is sending four Osprey aircraft and 150 more Air Force Special Forces personnel to provide further help.

“Obviously, Kony has been elusive for some time. We’ve been doing our best to capture him, and it still hasn’t happened,” Atallah says. “Do I see our efforts expanding into something like we’re doing with the LRA?” he adds. “At this juncture, I don’t think we’re going to go down that path.”

The abductions and the search for Boko Haram, as well as the hunt for Kony, will likely spur more study within the Pentagon, however. The episodes will be a catalyst for military strategists and special operators to more closely examine rebel groups that are able to operate across a number of national borders, Atallah adds. 

In the meantime, Pentagon officials are keeping expectations low. “Look, in any hostage situation, time is at a premium,” Kirby said. “We know that time is not on our side.” he added. “These girls have been gone a long time.”

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