By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson