WASHINGTON — Congress switched into high gear Tuesday over the case of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, with one senator calling for the U.S. to send in Special Forces and all of the women in the upper chamber demanding that the UN list the terrorist group under al-Qaeda sanctions.
The flurry of condemnation coupled with calls for action was a 180-turnabout from the scant attention the al-Qaeda-allied group has traditionally received on the Hill, as demonstrated by a sparsely attended subcommittee hearing last fall on the Islamist organization’s reign of terror — including continual kidnappings of young girls.
The Congressional African Staff Association organized a moment of silence Tuesday afternoon on the east steps of the Capitol for the 234 girls kidnapped in a raid on their school in Chibok state on April 14.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black led staffers and lawmakers, a bipartisan group ranging from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), in a prayer. Many wore red in solidarity with the families of the missing girls, and a Congolese musician performed in their honor.
Reps. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said they and other members of Congress would head to the Nigerian Embassy on Wednesday morning for a meeting with officials and a press conference. Jackson Lee said she sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry advocating that the department “exercise every means available to assist in the safe and speedy recovery of the missing girls, including enlisting the aid of the African Union.”
“Girls and young women around the world absolutely must be allowed to go to school peacefully and free from intimidation, persecution and all other forms of discrimination,” she added. “I call on whoever is responsible for abducting or continuing to hold these girls to release them immediately and unharmed. The abductors must ensure these young women return home safely, where they rightfully belong.”
On the Senate side, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) wrote directly to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. “We are appalled by this brutal and heinous act and reports that the girls may be trafficked to neighboring states and sold into child marriage,” the senators said. “We urge you to work expeditiously with international partners, including the United States, to determine what assistance is needed now to locate the missing women and bring their captors to justice.”
The Senate passed a resolution Tuesday introduced by Boxer, Coons, Durbin and Menendez, as well as Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), condemning the attack, urging the Obama administration to help in whatever way possible, and encouraging the Nigerian government to “strengthen efforts to protect the ability of children to obtain an education and to hold those who conduct such violent attacks accountable.”
The letter to Jonathan noted that, far from being intimated by the social media outcry over the Chibok kidnapping, Boko Haram abducted eight more girls in the Warabe village of Borno state. “The Nigerian people, especially its children, have a right to live and learn peacefully in their own land,” the senators wrote. “Moving forward, it is vital that your government engage with international partners to address the root causes of unrest in your nation and the escalating threat to peace, stability, and long-term development goals in Nigeria.”
And all 20 women in the Senate, led by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), sent a letter to President Obama calling for international sanctions against Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 and was conducting terror operations for years before being designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. last November.
“The girls were targeted by Boko Haram simply because they wanted to go to school and pursue knowledge, and we believe the United States must respond quickly and definitively,” the Senate women wrote. “In the face of the brazen nature of this horrific attack, the international community must impose further sanctions on this terrorist organization. Boko Haram is a threat to innocent civilians in Nigeria, to regional security, and to U.S. national interests.”
“While we applaud the initial U.S. condemnation of the kidnapping, we believe there is much more that the United States government should do to make clear that such an attack will not be tolerated. We urge you to press for the addition of Boko Haram and Ansaru to the United Nations Security Council’s al-Qa’ida Sanctions List, the mechanism by which international sanctions are imposed on al-Qa’ida and al-Qa’ida-linked organizations,” the letter continues. “Their addition to the List would compel a greater number of countries to sanction Boko Haram, joining several countries, including the United States, which have already done so. ”
Furthermore, Collins told CNN that the U.S. should send in military assistance.
“More can be done by this administration. I would like to see Special Forces deployed to help rescue these young girls. Some of these girls are as young as nine years old,” Collins said. “They’re being sold into slavery, forced into marriages, required to convert. This is just horrible.”
She added that Nigeria’s president would probably welcome the U.S. troops because he “obviously” lacks the capabilities to plunge into the northern border region and take on Boko Haram himself, despite their government’s continuous claim that they’re in “hot pursuit” of the terrorists.
“I would hope that he would encourage the United States to help him rescue these young citizens of his country, these girls who are being so exploited, kidnapped, taken from their homes,” said Collins. “This is horrendous and it requires a global outrage in response to what’s happening.”
Mikulski told CNN that she would rather see an African coalition of forces take the lead. “Find the girls, rescue the girls, punish the bad guys and send a message: we won’t tolerate it. You try it again, we’ll come after you again,” she said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), referring to Nigerian parents who were wading into Boko Haram territory armed with rudimentary weapons in a desperate effort to find the girls, told the network “you can’t just have bows and arrows going up against a terror organization.”
“I think this is one of these operations that could involve Special Forces… this is evidence of barbarity and the world cannot just stand by.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria “is prepared to form an interdisciplinary team that could provide expertise in victim assistance.”
“It would include U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations as well as officials with expertise in other areas that may be helpful to the Nigerian government in its response,” he said. “President Obama has directed that we do everything we can… this would be a team that would be focused on this issue, not just on the broader Boko Haram challenge that Nigeria faces.”
Carney added that “appropriate action must be taken to locate and to free these young women before they are trafficked or killed.”
“We’re not considering at this point military resources. We would urge Nigeria to ensure that any operation to free the girls would protect civilians and human rights.”
After a meeting Tuesday with EU High Representative Lady Catherine Ashton, Kerry said he conversed with Jonathan “on behalf of President Obama” and offered support.
“President Goodluck Jonathan was very happy to receive this offer and ready to move on it immediately, and we are immediately engaging in order to implement this,” Kerry said. “We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of these young girls, and we want to provide whatever assistance is possible in order to help for their safe return to their families.”
Kerry was asked at the press conference why it took so long — three weeks — for the U.S. to get outraged enough to mobilize an assistance effort.
“We have been in touch from day one, and our Embassy has been engaged and we have been engaged. But the government had its own set of strategies, if you will, in the beginning. And you can offer and talk, but you can’t do if a government has its own sense of how it’s proceeding,” Kerry replied. “I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort, and it will begin immediately. I mean literally immediately.”
The secretary added he’d be meeting later in the day with Obama, who “may or may not have something to say about this in the near term.”