WASHINGTON — Amid growing international outrage, the U.S. government has sent 30 military, intelligence and law enforcement advisers to Nigeria to help find 270 teenage girls kidnapped a month ago by Boko Haram, that nation’s most feared armed faction. But in a nation where government forces are distrusted and politicians are resistant to accept help, how much can the U.S. effort help to, as the Twitter hashtag urges, #bringbackourgirls?
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the United States had deployed manned fixed-wing aircraft and drones in the search for the girls, who were taken from their school April 14.
Many think the girls are being hidden in small groups deep in Nigeria’s northeastern forests, in an area the size of New England, where spotting them will be difficult even with the best technology. And once they are spotted, military officials and experts agreed, the United States must be judicious in how it shares its intelligence with Nigerian officials.
Boko Haram’s grip on Nigeria, particularly in the northeast, where the girls were snatched, is wide and thorough, running through every sector of government. A year ago Wednesday, Nigeria declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, saying terrorists had created “fear among our citizens and a near-breakdown of law and order in parts of the country.” Since 2010, at least 300 students have been killed in attacks by Boko Haram, which loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.” The group has said it kidnapped the girls because they needed to be married off rather than schooled.
Yet until this case, the Nigerian government was reluctant to publicly pressure Boko Haram. In February, for example, at least 29 male students were killed, many of them burned alive, after Boko Haram forces stormed their dormitory in the state of Yobe, setting it ablaze. The female students were reportedly told to leave and get married instead. In the hours before the attack, the school guards mysteriously vanished. In July, Boko Haram attacked another school in Yobe state, killing 42 people, mostly students. Both attacks spurred little response from national officials.
Five years ago, Boko Haram operated as a quasi-legitimate organization with the backing of some politicians. Since then it’s wrested control of the northeast from government forces, who either are aligned with it or don’t act against it out of fears of attacks on their families.
As one former defense official who worked on U.S. Africa Command issues explained: The U.S. “will have to be careful who it shares the intelligence with.” The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, in order to talk freely.
Even if the girls are spotted, rescuing them poses its own challenges. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for U.S. special forces to enter Nigeria if U.S. officials spot the abducted girls.
“If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without the permission of the host country,” McCain said. Referring to Nigeria’s president, McCain said: “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”
Nigeria is unlikely to accept help, even on a case with this much international focus, and it would aggressively reject help were it to be forced on them. Accepting U.S. and French advisers was a major departure from previous practice and likely wouldn’t have happened were it not for the worldwide Twitter campaign. Days after the girls were kidnapped, the government claimed it had rescued all the girls, in an effort to defuse pressure, only to be called out by the girls’ parents and principal.
Nigeria is top contributor to the United Nations peacekeeping missions and prides itself on offering help to other nations rather than needing it. In recent years, perhaps as a result of its past as a British colony, it’s viewed American military expansion into Africa through the creation of the U.S. Africa Command with deep suspicion. It had previously rejected a U.S. drone presence to tackle Boko Haram.
There also are domestic politics at play.
“My sense, always, on the political side was there was a fear that if they accepted help, the opposition would point and say, ‘See, this government is not capable of solving problems on their own,’ ” the former defense official said.
Students of the country say local leaders must take the initiative to rescue the girls. But that’s also fraught with difficulty. Tribal sheikhs in the area fear Boko Haram and distrust a central government that’s done little to stop the group’s spread.
Among the recommendations the U.S. has made to the central government, the State Department said Wednesday, is urging it to develop better communications with the country’s local governments. Experts say another recommendation should be to reject a proposal from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to exchange the girls for imprisoned militants. He made the offer in a video released Monday that showed some of the girls.
“Put pressure on locals to find these girls because Boko Haram is among the population,” said Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research and analysis firm.
That the United States chose to help three weeks after the kidnapping was a response in part to the worldwide Twitter campaign. That also presents its own challenges.
The last time the United States sought to intervene militarily in Africa was in 2011, when the Obama administration, responding to a mandate from Congress, deployed a small group of troops to central Africa to help hunt down Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Months later another Twitter hashtag campaign, #Kony2012, erupted on the heels of a movie about Kony’s war crimes. The U.S. efforts to find the elusive guerrilla leader have failed, however, and Kony remains on the run.
The former defense official said the Kony mission not only failed to find him but also diverted “assets that we would have preferred to use elsewhere, to challenges that were more threatening to the United States.”
Many think the greatest help the United States could extend, beyond rescuing the girls, is to help Nigerians fight for a government that isn’t so vulnerable to the burgeoning Boko Haram influence.
“I think there is a role for the U.S here,” said retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led the African Command until last year. Citing the U.S. designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, Ham said the U.S. now could identify the group’s international financiers and search for links between it and al Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Most importantly, the United States can press Nigeria to solve the country’s internal economic issues.
“The greatest impact we can have is to press the Nigerian government to address the pressing issues that make young men vulnerable to Boko Haram recruiting,” Ham said. “Our efforts on the non-military front can be more helpful.”
Zenn, of the Jamestown Foundation, proposed a special task force assigned to Nigeria to tackle the country’s leadership issues with the goal of isolating Boko Haram once the girls are rescued.
“It’s about shaping the environment, from the most local tribal leader to the politician to the soldier, to make it difficult for Boko Haram to do this again,” he said.