“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 said.
It said the Obama administration has shared the images with President Goodluck Jonathan’s government in Abuja but that “Nigeria’s security forces are hampered by poor equipment and training and have failed to respond quickly.”
US Defence officials, according to the report, believe the insurgents split the girls into several groups after the April 14 abduction from their school even as the US officials made it clear that the girls’ locations are still unknown.
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.
If this is the case, some girls might be found before others, posing a dilemma for would-be rescuers.
“In the past, Boko Haram has threatened, and maybe actually gone ahead with, killing hostages upon sensing the hint of possible rescue operations,” said a security source. Rescuing some girls could add to danger faced by others still captive.
Another problem is time. Britain’s minister responsible for African affairs, Mark Simmonds, said on Wednesday that it was “early days” in the rescue operation, yet the abduction happened on April 14 so rebels have had ample time to prepare for an international response.
A senior US Defence Department official criticised Nigeria on Thursday for being too slow to adapt to the threat of Boko Haram.
Even coordinating an international effort faces difficulties in Nigeria, which recently overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy. Nigeria has close ties with Western powers but has historically resisted foreign military involvement on its soil.
One possible sign of differing approaches is that Simmonds, rather than the president himself, announced that Jonathan had ruled out any prisoner exchange for the girls’ release. Nigerian officials have since declined to comment.
Ultimately, the girls’ best hope may lie in dialogue but the road to talks remains uncertain because the rebels do not form a unified group.
Boko Haram is faceless and even Shekau heads just one of several loosely coordinated groups with differing objectives, said a senior official with knowledge of the northeast.
A Nigerian presidential committee set up last year for talks with the rebels dealt last year with Boko Haram proxies. But they were later denounced by other Boko Haram militants as impostors, according to Minister of Special Duties, Tanimu Turaki, who leads the committee.
One security source in Abuja cautioned against raising false hopes. “It is time we removed the thought of a very happy ending to this situation,” the source said.
Pressure to find the girls
Wednesday marked one month since the 276 girls were abducted from Chibok by Boko Haram. A worldwide campaign to “bring back our girls” has spread awareness of the incident, and as the days go by, the pressure to find them increases.
US Senator, John McCain, is among those who support American military intervention to find the girls, if needed.
“You know, it’s interesting to me that when a ship is hijacked and taken into custody by these pirates, we have … no reservations about going in and trying to take that ship back and the crew that’s being held,” he said. “We have no compunctions about that.”
When it comes to the hundreds of girls who were kidnapped, the response has dragged, he said.
A US military operation “could be done in a way that is very efficient, but for us not to do that, in my opinion, would be an abrogation of our responsibilities,” McCain said.
Two senior administration officials told CNN that it is premature to talk about a special operations incursion into Nigeria because the girls have not been found yet.
The US military is there to advise and assist, but not to actively participate, the sources said.
If the girls are found, it would be up to the Nigerians to devise a plan and execute it with US assistance, the sources said.
And that raises other complications.
The Nigerian military is capable of carrying out a rescue operation, but there are concerns because it has been heavy-handed in the past and killed many civilians, the sources said.
As it currently stands, US law prohibits the US military from working with Nigerian military units that have been accused of abuses, a senior State Department official said.
“We’ve been very clear about our concerns about the Nigerian reports of and evidence of abuses by the Nigerian military,” the official said.
Even with all of these complications, the United States is committed to doing everything it can to find the girls, the official said.
Boko Haram’s brutal insurgency has created widespread fear in northeast Nigeria,
Boko Haram, meanwhile, has built up an arsenal of weapons and a fleet of trucks stolen from police stations and military barracks.
Robert Jackson, a US State Department specialist on Africa, said at the Senate hearing on Thursday that militants had killed more than 1,000 people this year in attacks on churches, mosques, schools and security outposts. The group drew little international attention until it vowed to sell the abducted girls as slaves.
Boko Haram initially styled itself after the Taliban in Afghanistan, claiming it wanted to create a strict Islamic state in Nigeria.
Boko Haram was added to the US list of foreign terrorist organisations last year.
US officials say some of its fighters received training and weapons from the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African offshoot of Al Qaeda. French troops destroyed training camps in Mali early last year, however, Defence officials said. Since then, outside financial and training support for Boko Haram has waned.
Partly as a result, Boko Haram intensified a kidnapping campaign that has generated large ransoms, said a US counter-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
US officials say intelligence on Boko Haram is sketchy. They estimate that 300 trained fighters have joined the group. The total swells to about 3,000 if financial and other supporters are included.