The Nigerian Army rescued 160 women and children from Boko Haram on Thursday, and more could follow as troops trek further into Sambisa Forest, the Islamist militants' stronghold.
The news comes two days after the Army announced that almost 300 women and children had been rescued from the same location. So far, none of those rescued include the 200 Chibok girls kidnapped last April, sparking international opprobrium.
“Additional numbers of persons are still being recovered from the forest,” defense spokesperson Chris Olukolade said in a press conference in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. “Until such comprehensive profiling is done, nobody can confirm whether they are among the Chibok girls or not.”
The almost 500 hostages rescued this week are the result of a military offensive into Sambisa Forest that began Monday. A successful counterinsurgency campaign into the forest – long assumed to be the launchpad for Boko Haram attacks and described as its “last bastion" – may be a tipping point.
Since early February, Nigerian troops, alongside those of Chad, Niger, Benin, and Cameroon, have been slowly recapturing towns once overrun by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria. Abubakar Shekau, the group's purported leader, has been unusually quiet and was last seen in a video released in March. In it, he pledged allegiance to the self-described Islamic State and threatened to disrupt the Nigerian election that month.
Sambisa is a dense area of forest that covers about 23,000 square miles and is notoriously difficult to navigate without a deep knowledge of the terrain. Formerly a game reserve during colonial times, the thorny forest connects the northeast states of Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Bauchi, and Kano that Boko Haram has repeatedly terrorized.
It was an easy base for militants to hide in after staging raids. It is also thought to be where the group initially took the Chibok girls soon after the kidnapping.
“The attacks on Maiduguri, across in Nigeria, in Cameroon, a lot of it comes from Sambisa Forest,” Yan St. Pierre, an analyst with Berlin-based security firm MOSECON, told Voice of America. "So if they’re not pushed out, all the activities, suicide bombers, militia training a lot of the stuff they’ve been able to do so far will still go on.”
The new operation is a major about-turn for the Nigerian Army since last May, when The New York Times reported the US government’s frustrations with Nigeria's approach to fighting Boko Haram.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, administration officials on Thursday offered an unusually candid and public assessment of the Nigerian military.
“We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” said Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs. “The Nigerian military has the same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does. Much of the funding that goes to the Nigerian military is skimmed off the top, if you will.”
The testimony also served as an opportunity for administration officials to pre-empt Republican criticism that the White House was slow to respond to the crisis. The problem, they said, rested more with Nigerian officials who ignored past American warnings to soften brutal tactics that only fueled Boko Haram’s insurgency.
American surveillance aircraft, both manned and unmanned, are making flights over the heavily forested region in northeastern Nigeria where the girls are believed to be held. So far, there are few if any clues about the girls’ location.
“We’re basically searching for these girls in an area that’s roughly the size of West Virginia,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “So it’s a tough challenge, to be sure.
Even though the multinational force has gained ground in recent weeks, Boko Haram is far from defeated. On Saturday, 46 soldiers from Niger and 28 civilians were killed on an island in Lake Chad, Niger’s Defense Ministry said. There were also reports of a suspected Boko Haram attack on 21 displaced civilians trying to return to their home in Yobe State.
Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria's incoming president and a former military general, has vowed that he will stamp out Boko Haram. He takes office May 29.