WASHINGTON — The United States has sent 80 service members to Chad in Central Africa to support a growing international effort in neighboring Nigeria to help locate and rescue the schoolgirls who were abducted by an Islamist extremist group last month, White House officials said today.
The U.S. military personnel are not ground troops. They are mostly Air Force flight crew members, maintenance specialists and security officers for unarmed Predator surveillance drones that will help search for the more than 260 Nigerian girls seized by the group, Boko Haram.
“These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” read a White House statement formally notifying Congress about the deployment.
For the past 10 days, the U.S. military has been flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over heavily forested regions in northeastern Nigeria, where intelligence officials believe the captors are hiding the girls. But the aircraft have had to fly hundreds of miles to reach the search area, limiting the time they can loiter over the region.
In contrast, the Predators will operate from a large air base in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, very near the search area across the border. France, the former colonial power in Chad, has long stationed fighter jets and other aircraft at the same air base.
“The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required,” the White House statement said.
The deployment to Chad augments a team of about 30 specialists from the State Department, the FBI and the Pentagon who have been sent to Nigeria to advise officials there. About half are military personnel with medical, intelligence, counterterrorism and communications skills.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced an agreement that would allow the U.S. to share some intelligence — including aerial imagery — with Nigerian officials, but not raw intelligence data. U.S. officials are wary of sharing too much because they believe that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security services.
The violence in northern Nigeria has worsened this week, with reports surfacing today of attacks on more villages. Witnesses said at least 30 people were killed in attacks on Monday and Tuesday. More than 100 people were also killed on Tuesday in a suicide car bombing in the city of Jos. The U.S. has described the bombings in Jos and elsewhere as “vicious attacks on defenseless Nigerian civilians.”
The Defense Department’s announcement followed a meeting in Paris last weekend at which Nigeria and four neighboring countries — Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger — agreed to work together to combat Boko Haram, saying the group had become a common threat.
So far, there are few if any clues about the girls’ location. “Our sense at this point is that they’ve been dispersed into multiple smaller groups,” Amanda Dory, the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, said during a House hearing today. “They may or may not all be in Nigeria.”
Another senior official, Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, sidestepped a question from one lawmaker asking for an update on the girls’ location and welfare. “Given time, I am hopeful that we will make progress,” Sewall said.
At the hearing, the two U.S. officials committed the administration to any effort to recover the girls safely. But they also made little attempt to mask their assessment that the Nigerian government, and specifically its military, must overcome entrenched corruption and incompetence to free the girls.
Sewall said that despite Nigeria’s $5.8 billion security budget this year, “corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines of the struggle against Boko Haram.”
Morale is low, and desertions are common among soldiers in Nigeria’s 7th Army Division, the main fighting unit in the northeast, Sewall said.
Dory said that the Nigerian military’s heavy-handed tactics with Boko Haram risked “further harming and alienating local populations.”