Rescuers may struggle to find more than 200 Nigerian girls abducted by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram because the gunmen are able to hide in rough terrain along porous borders and the captives may have been sold.
The U.S. plans to send security personnel and equipment to the West African nation to help rescue the girls who were abducted from their secondary school dormitories in northeastern Nigeria more than three weeks ago. The U.K. and France today pledged to help find the students whose kidnapping has sparked international outrage and protests in cities around the world. President Barack Obama called the ordeal “heartbreaking.”
The bordering areas of Cameroon, Niger and Chad are where “Boko Haram has carved out its back bases and have momentarily secured it against military targeting, given the abducted school girls provide a human shield,” Natznet Tesfay, senior Africa manager at IHS Country Risk in London, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. The U.S. and U.K. could provide “immediate support” with aerial surveillance, Tesfay said.
The militants’ leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a video released this week that the girls, some as young as 15, were abducted as punishment for getting educated instead of married and he threatened to sell the captives on “markets” and force them into marriage. Boko Haram, which means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, has been waging a violent campaign to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in Nigeria.
The girls have probably been already forced to marry Boko Haram fighters or sold in slave markets, Mathieu Guidere, an analyst of al-Qaeda and Islamist groups in West and North Africa at the University of Toulouse II, said today by phone.
“The first step after their abduction was to force them to marry members of the group,” he said. “And the ones who have not been forced to marry have been sold on different slave markets. There are very few girls who are still effectively in the hands of Boko Haram and that’s what makes it so difficult to localize them.”
France, which has troops fighting militants in Mali, already has intelligence officials in neighboring countries, Guidere said.
“The French are conducting intelligence operations in Chad, Cameroon, Niger,” he said. “Their aim is to avoid violence and especially to avoid the internationalization of the issue.”
The girls may be in Sambisa forest, Elizabeth Donnelly, assistant head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, said today. Sambisa, a game reserve during colonial times, covers about 60,000 square kilometers (23,166 square miles) across Borno and four other states.
“It is a very difficult region, and a very dangerous situation and civilians have really borne the brunt of it,” Donnelly said.
The captives have probably been split up, so multiple search parties will have to venture into Boko Haram-controlled territory and operate at night, Peter Sharwood-Smith, West Africa manager for security company Drum Cussac, said in an e-mailed reply to questions today from Lagos.
“A rescue would probably require the use of rotary wing aircraft, and would be best carried out at night, which would be very difficult,” Sharwood-Smith said.
The U.S. Africa Command is sending about 10 personnel as part of an interagency U.S. team, Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today. They won’t be laying the groundwork for a rescue led by U.S. special operations forces, he said.
“Their purpose there is to coordinate with the Nigerian government and assess what assistance we can provide them,” Warren said. “As of now we have no plans to conduct a broader military operation.”
Spy satellites operated by the U.S. and its allies have the ability to locate groups of people much fewer in number than the girls and their kidnappers, according to an U.S. official with knowledge of the subject not authorized to speak on the record.
The U.S. National Security Agency and other electronic eavesdropping agencies such as the U.K.’s General Communications Headquarters listen for, locate and track unusual spikes in mobile phone, satellite phone and computer communications such as those that might be associated with a militant operation as large as this one, the official said.
“The technical intelligence which western powers can contribute will be of limited value in a place with such poor telephone coverage and where few of the victims are likely to have had their own phones,” a former U.K. defense attache to Nigeria, James Hall, said today in an e-mailed response to questions.
Gunmen seized eight more girls between the ages of 12 and 15 from Borno state on May 4, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund and residents of the affected Gwoza district.
The Borno government in March had ordered all schools closed over fears of attacks, after more than 50 schools in the region were burned down over a year and the assault on a school in bordering Yobe state in February that left 29 students dead.
The kidnappings “may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization,” Obama said in an interview yesterday with ABC News.
The U.S. is seeking “greater cooperation” with Nigerians to deal with the threat posed by Boko Haram, Obama said. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in the House of Commons today that his government is offering assistance in response to this “pure act of evil,” while French President Francois Hollande said he’s also willing to provide help.
More than 414,000 people have signed an online petition calling for increased efforts to save the girls and people are mobilizing on Twitter under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people and forced almost half a million others to flee their homes, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
On the same day as the kidnapping in Chibok last month a bomb blast claimed by Boko Haram at a bus station in the capital, Abuja, killed at least 75 people. Less than three weeks later, a nearby part of the city was hit by a second bombing that left at least 19 people dead.
The government has promised to boost security as the city hosts company executives, heads of state and other senior government officials for the World Economic Forum on Africa that runs today through May 9.
The Nigerian police force is offering a cash reward of 50 million naira ($312,000) to “anyone who volunteers credible information that will lead to the location and rescue of the female students,” it said today in a statement on its website.