As the Obama administration on Wednesday began preparing to deploy a team of military and civilian advisers to aid in the search for abducted Nigerian schoolgirls, members of Congress pressed for a more muscular response to the militant Islamist group that carried out the mass kidnapping last month.
While international plans to help the Nigerian government were being drawn up, new reports emerged Wednesday of widespread violence in the country’s northeast, where the extremist group Boko Haram has sought to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. About 300 people were killed by militants in Gamboru Ngala, a town near the border with Cameroon, the Associated Press reported.
Officials in Washington said a team of fewer than 10 U.S. military personnel and civilians from intelligence and law enforcement agencies were expected to arrive in the Nigerian capital within days to set up a “coordination cell” of advisers with technical and logistics expertise.
Officials at the Pentagon said they did not anticipate that U.S. ground troops would be deployed to join the search and noted that no American surveillance assets have been brought to bear.
“We’re still working on ways we can work with the Nigerians,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III said. “No assets have been committed to this operation.”
Prominent members of Congress called for a far more robust U.S. role. Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would convene a hearing to “examine the administration’s response to the abhorrent and appalling kidnappings.” He called on the administration to develop a “long-term strategic, multifaceted approach to help Nigeria combat Boko Haram.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement that dispatching U.S. advisers should be “just the first step.” Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, added that she would “support whatever actions are necessary to locate, capture and eliminate the terrorists responsible for this reprehensible act.”
The Nigerian government, which has played down the strength of Boko Haram, publicly welcomed this week’s offers of assistance from Washington. In the past, however, President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has been unwilling to heed U.S. advice and accept offers of support to combat the rise of Islamist militancy in the country’s northeast.
“The Nigerians have shown a reluctance to accept not only our assistance but also a reluctance to accept some of our analytic advice,” said Johnnie Carson, who was assistant secretary of state for Africa until last year. “It is important that the Nigerians accept this.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. ambassador in Abuja, James F. Entwistle, met Wednesday with Nigeria’s national security adviser to start making a formal assessment of the capabilities Washington could bring to bear.
“Obviously, this is in the interests of the Nigerian government to accept every aspect of our assistance,” Psaki said. “They conveyed that they were willing to do that yesterday and it continues to be in their interest to be as cooperative as possible.”
Carson said the United States could share satellite data to help track the movements of the fighters, which would mirror assistance it has contributed to the international hunt for elusive rebel leader Joseph Kony in eastern Africa.
The Obama administration has been critical of the military approach of the Jonathan government, which is dominated by Christians from the country’s south, in dealing with the insurrection in the predominantly Muslim north.
Washington has advocated a wider economic and social-justice agenda to counter the dogmatic Islamists and increase national loyalty among disaffected northern Nigerians. Jonathan has mostly ignored the advice, Carson and others said.
“There has always been a security response to these problems, and that security response generally has been very, very heavy-handed — brutal in many instances,” Carson said, which has led many Nigerians to regard the military as a threat nearly on par with the militants.
Oronto Douglas, an adviser to Jonathan, said in an interview Wednesday that the Nigerian government is eager to accept Washington’s help in dealing with its growing extremism problem.
“America has many years of dealing with terrorism,” he said. “This is very new in Nigeria, and in a new situation like this you have to seek allies, meet with people and draw on the experience and capacity of nations that have been dealing with terrorism for years.”
The girls were abducted three weeks ago after they defied Boko Haram — which rejects education for girls and women — by showing up to take final exams at a secondary school that had been shuttered. Militants abducted about 250 girls, while another 50 reportedly managed to escape.
The students’ plight did not generate much attention until this week, after demonstrators in Nigeria criticized the government for not doing more to combat militancy. The protests marred the start of the World Economic Forum, which Nigeria, which has the continent’s largest economy, is hosting this week.
Supporters around the world took to Twitter to demand the students’ safe return, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. First lady Michelle Obama added her voice to the cause Tuesday, tweeting a photo of herself looking sad and holding a sheet of white paper with the hashtag.
Douglas said the criticism leveled against Jonathan’s administration is unfounded, saying the “government is doing all it can in coordination with our allies to ensure that our daughters are brought back home.”
If political calls for greater assistance to Nigeria were to grow louder, the Obama administration would face a dilemma because of the poor human rights record of the country’s armed forces. Under a law championed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the United States is barred from providing training and certain types of support to forces known to have committed abuses.