May 17, 2014
Revealing photographs of Boko Haram fighters have been taken by United States manned and unmanned aircraft as American military and intelligence specialists intensified the hunt for Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls.
However, US officials have expressed frustration with the country’s inability to act on these and other fresh intelligence about the Boko Haram extremists who took more than 200 school girls captive and threatened to sell them into slavery, The Los Angeles Times has reported.
“Images from US surveillance drones and satellites over the last week has shown suspected bands of Boko Haram militants setting up temporary camps and moving through isolated villages and along dirt tracks in northeastern Nigeria,” the report quoted US officials as saying.
It said the Obama administration has shared the images with President Goodluck Jonathan’s government in Abuja. “But Nigeria’s security forces are hampered by poor equipment and training and have failed to respond quickly,” said a US official familiar with the growing search operation.
US Defence officials, according to the report, believe the insurgents split the girls into several groups after the April 14 abduction from school in Chibok village. The leader of the militants, Abubakar Shekau, said this week that he would release some of the girls in exchange for imprisoned members of his group.
Bolstered by international help, the Nigerian-led search has now expanded to include an ungoverned area of desert and that crosses the porous borders into neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, US officials say. The girls’ locations are still unknown, however, the report said.
Meanwhile, mounting US frustration with the case spilled into the open on Thursday at a US Senate hearing where US officials complained of lack of decisive actions on what had been harvested so far.
“It is impossible to fathom that we might have actionable intelligence and we would not have the wherewithal — whether by the Nigerians themselves or by other entities helping the Nigerians — to be able to conduct a rescue mission,” said Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“In general, Nigeria has failed to mount an effective campaign against Boko Haram,” Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for Africa, told committee members. “In the face of a new and more sophisticated threat than it has faced before, its security forces have been slow to adapt with new strategies, new doctrines and new tactics.”
The United States, however, said it will continue to deepen its efforts, Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, said while traveling to Saudi Arabia.
“However, I have seen no intelligence come back that I am aware of that shows that we’ve located those girls,” he said.
For now, the United States is not sharing raw intelligence from its surveillance aircraft with Nigeria’s armed forces because the countries have still not established the intelligence-sharing protocols and safeguards needed for an intelligence-sharing agreement, Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said.
That said, the intelligence gathered through the surveillance flights is being fed to an interdisciplinary team on the ground, and that team is analysing it and providing advice to the Nigerian government, he said.
Warren added that the manned and unmanned aircraft being used are unarmed.
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the kidnapping of hundreds of girls an “unconscionable crime,” vowing to do “everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice.
“I will tell you, my friends, I have seen this scourge of terror across the planet, and so have you. They don’t offer anything except violence,” he said in a statement. “They just tell people, ‘You have to behave the way we tell you to,’ and they will punish you if you don’t.”
Parents of the abducted girls have complained that they reported the location of the militants and the girls days after the kidnapping but that security forces did not respond. Jonathan cancelled his plan to fly to Chibok on Friday which would have been his first since the girls were seized.
In addition to the US drones and satellite coverage, a manned US surveillance plane has been flying sorties over Nigeria this week. The British government has pledged to send a surveillance aircraft, and France, Israel and China have offered to share intelligence and satellite imagery, officials said.
The US team of about 30 advisers includes military experts in logistics, communications and information sharing. The White House has said it has no plan to send troops to take an active part in search-and-rescue operations.
“Nigeria’s hunt for more than 200 abducted schoolgirls is not all that it seems. In public, an international operation is gathering pace while behind the scenes, officials say it is unlikely to deliver the success that global opinion demands,” a report by Reuters said on Friday.
The report admitted that “But officials have little idea where the girls are, and acknowledge that if they are found, any rescue attempt would be fraught with problems. On top of that, morale is shaky among some of the Nigerian troops involved in the hunt who already have experience of Boko Haram as a formidable foe.
“We commend the effort by the #BringBackOurGirls protesters but it doesn’t fit with the reality of the security situation we are facing,” Reuters quoted a senior Nigerian military source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Foreign experts are also pessimistic that the girls can be easily extricated from the rebels’ clutches and returned to their homes in Nigeria’s remote northeast where Boko Haram operates.
“I think a rescue is currently unlikely and unfeasible,” said Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at US counter-terrorism institution, CTC Sentinel.
Until Monday, nothing had been seen of the girls since they were snatched from the village of Chibok near Nigeria’s borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Then Boko Haram released a video showing more than 100 girls together in a rural location. In it, rebel leader Abubakar Shekau offered to exchange them for captured militants.
The video raised hopes that their location could be found using ground forces, state-of-the-art intelligence and surveillance planes.
Then an operation could be staged, perhaps with forces swooping from the sky like a British raid in Sierra Leone in 2000 to free soldiers held by militiamen, or Israeli commandoes’ rescue of passengers from a jet hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.
However, such a scenario is unlikely this time. One source with knowledge of the search said the footage was probably taken at least 10 days ago, if Boko Harma’s past videos are any guide. By now, the girls could be somewhere else as a group, or dispersed to many places.
The Sambisa forest, Boko Haram’s stronghold, is a first target but it is not conducive to aerial search because it covers 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 square miles), more than twice the size of Rwanda. The rebels know this area intimately and could spread the girls among local families, making them virtually undetectable by conventional security forces.
Two US national security sources said initially, the girls were separated into around three large groups but were subsequently scattered in smaller groups. Other experts said they could be in mountains near Gwoza on the Cameroon border.