It’s been three weeks since more than 300 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, and President Goodluck Jonathan is finally asking for help.
On Tuesday, Nigeria’s leader, who has faced angry criticism for his passive handling of an incident he did not even publicly acknowledge until Sunday, accepted the US government’s offer to send “personnel and assets” to help with a so far unsuccessful rescue effort.
The announcement came a day after the leader of Boko Haram claimed in a lengthy and often rambling video statement that the Islamic militants were behind the massive abduction, and that they planned to marry the girls and “sell them in the market.”
Video emerged on May 5 showing Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claiming responsibility for the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok the previous month.
“I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference on Tuesday. “And it will begin immediately. I mean, literally, immediately.”
But if you are already picturing US Navy SEALs parachuting into Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest Reserve from Air Force special operations planes like they did in the 2012 rescue of Jessica Buchanan, a US aid worker kidnapped in Somalia, that’s not exactly what US officials — or their Nigerian counterparts — have in mind.
The US is not considering sending armed forces at all, White House officials said, but rather “technical assistance from U.S. military and law enforcement officials” — a handful of consultants, in other words.
'We’ve been chasing Kony for the last decade and we haven’t found him yet, the odds of recovering and rescuing these girls are very, very limited sadly.'
The Americans’ offer “includes the deployment of U.S. security personnel and assets to work with their Nigerian counterparts in the search and rescue operation,” the Nigerian president’s office said in a statement. Nigeria's security agencies are working at "full capacity," the statement adds, and they appreciate the help of "counter-insurgency know-how and expertise."
But finding the 276 girls that are still missing, three weeks after they vanished into thin air, is likely to be a logistical nightmare, as reports have them already married off to militants or ferried abroad to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Two girls have reportedly died, and at least 20 have become ill.
And though the US pledged to do “everything it can,” it’s not like these girls are American.
'Inherently, it’s a Nigerian crisis.'
“To be frank it means they’ll send a handful of FBI agents over to advise in hostage negotiations and a potential rescue operation, it’s very unlikely we are launching any US military forces to go do the mission," Dan O’Shea, a former US Navy SEAL who spent several years working on hostage rescue operations in Iraq, told VICE News. “They are not US citizens, there’s no US equity at stake, to risk US assets. We are paying more lip service than anything else.”
Responsibility for the missing girls is ultimately on Nigerian authorities, who have been progressively losing their grip over Boko Haram’s insurgency.
“Inherently, it’s a Nigerian crisis. We will advise, provide some technological advantages, but if it was a group of American exchange students who were studying abroad, that would be one thing, but the odds are, the US is not going to send a large foot print, more than few advisers, to assist the Nigerians in their rescue attempt,” he added. “The optimist in me would like to say that they’ll be able to help the effort, but it’s more symbolic than anything else. We’ve been chasing Kony for the last decade and we haven’t found him yet, the odds of recovering and rescuing these girls are very, very limited sadly.”
While ransoms and private negotiations are what usually solves hostage crises, O'Shea said, rescuing these girls will take more.
"In this case, we have a group of terrorists, trained by and affiliated with al Qaeda, motivated not by greed but religious fanaticism. There is no negotiating with this ideology, which makes a large scale, very complex hostage rescue mission, the only option on the table to save these young girls," he said. "Unfortunately, only a handful of special operations units in the world are capable of pulling off something like this operation, and the Nigerian Army isn't one of them. I would hope that the hostage girls would come home safely but the reality is that it would probably end in a bloodbath."
The massive abduction shocked the world and drew strong international condemnation — but not immediately.
School girls in the Nigerian town of Calabar took to the streets on May 5 to demand the release of the students abducted by Boko Haram in Borno State.
Kerry said US officials had been in touch with their Nigerian counterparts “from day one,” but that their offers for assistance were ignored until now — as Nigerian authorities pursued their own “strategy,” he said.
But the plight of the missing girls did not hit the global spotlight until a series of protests were staged in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and across the country, primarily by women angry at the government’s inaction.
Social media campaigns organized around the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls also went viral, if belatedly, with some critics wondering why the world did not react to the massive abduction sooner.
Speaking on NBC’s “Today” program, on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said that he can only imagine what the missing girls’ parents are going through and that the immediate priority is to find them.
"We're going to do everything we can to provide assistance to them,” Obama said. "But we're also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that ... can cause such havoc in people's day-to-day lives."
Boko Haram preaches Sharia law and has been behind a long series of violent attacks, particularly against schools. The group was also believed to be behind a deadly bombing at a bus station outside Abuja earlier this month, which killed at least 71 people — the deadliest attack ever in Nigeria’s capital.
'If similar scenarios in other regions are to serve as a lesson, US involvement is probably not a great idea.'
In his video statement, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to kidnap more girls, and eight more girls were in fact abducted from a village in a militant stronghold area on Tuesday.
“This is how they operate, Boko Haram has been doing this for a long time, kidnapping is out of the playbook for these Islamic extremists groups,” O’Shea said. “That’s how they raise money, how they raise awareness, and how they spread terror. It’s a very effective tool and that’s why they will continue to do it.”
Like al Shabaab and other Islamic militant groups that have gained ground across the African continent, Boko Haram’s growing attacks have caught the world’s attention.
But if similar scenarios in other regions are to serve as a lesson, US involvement is probably not a great idea, especially has Nigeria’s own record in dealing with the insurgency has little popularity with a local population that associates it to widespread abuse.
'If Nigeria doesn't change its counter-Boko Haram tactics, the US could taint itself by association with Nigeria's human rights violations.'
“Even if the US wanted to do more to help Nigeria counter Boko Haram, they need to change their tactics so they don't feed into Boko Haram's narrative and continue to alienate the northern population,” security analyst and expert on African conflicts Lesley Anne Warner wrote in a series of Twitter comments on Washington’s promise to aid Nigerian authorities. “Any help the US gives will not help them, in the short term, surge the trust they need to build.”
She added that building trust should include protecting potential informants rather than cracking down on them, “beating, humiliating, and extra-judicially executing them.”
“If Nigeria doesn't change its counter-Boko Haram tactics, techniques and procedures,” she said, “the US could taint itself by association with Nigeria's human rights violations.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi