The Obama administration is conducting surveillance flights over Nigeria in the search for more than 250 abducted schoolgirls and is considering the deployment of drones to the region to bolster the effort, officials said Monday.
Additionally, the administration has all but one of the 27 experts and security officials assigned to the mission already in place in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, officials said. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the team includes five State Department officials, 10 Pentagon planners and advisers who were already in Nigeria, and seven more sent from the U.S. military’s Africa Command, along with four FBI experts in safe recovery, negotiations and prevention of kidnappings.
“The scope of that assistance has been outlined, and it includes military and law enforcement assistance, advisory assistance, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support,” Carney said.
Although he would not provide much detail, the summary was the clearest statement yet that the United States will use its own satellite or other surveillance data and provide intelligence analysis for the search effort, which critics of the Nigerian government contend has been lackadaisical and poorly resourced.
“We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets over Nigeria with the government’s permission,” a senior administration official said Monday evening.
A senior Pentagon official said that the United States has not mobilized drones to aid the search but that commanders in Africa are exploring whether to do so. The official, who like the other administration officials was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly, said drones in the region would be diverted from the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The United States has drones at three military outpost in Africa — in Djibouti in the eastern Horn of Africa, where both armed and unarmed aircraft are based, and in Ethiopia and Niger, which shares a long border with Nigeria. The U.S. Air Force began using unarmed drones from Niger early last year on surveillance missions in search of al-Qaeda fighters and guerrillas from other groups in north and west Africa.
The United States also is likely to provide help monitoring and intercepting communications among members of Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group that seized the girls.
U.S. officials cautioned that the mission to find the schoolgirls would not be easy.
“When we talk about assisting in the effort to locate the girls, we are talking about helping the Nigerian government search an area that is roughly the size of New England,” Carney said. “So, this is no small task. But we are certainly bringing resources to bear in our effort to assist the government.”
Asked about new video purporting to show some of the abducted teenagers, Carney said the United States has no reason to question its authenticity.
“Our intelligence experts are combing over it, every detail of it, for clues that might help in the ongoing efforts to secure the release of the girls,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki suggested that the United States would oppose the payment of any ransom for some or all of the girls, but she said the Nigerian government is making its own decisions. The head of Boko Haram suggested over the weekend that the group would negotiate for ransom or trade.
“The United States policy . . . is to deny kidnappers the benefits of their criminal acts, including ransoms or concessions,” Psaki said.