Top State Department Official for Africa Calls Terrorist Boko Haram a 'Group of Bandits'

Characterizing al-Qaeda-allied terrorist group Boko Haram as a "group of bandits," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended the timing of the U.S. response to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls more than three weeks ago.

"I wish I could tell you where the girls are. I don't think we have an answer to that. And I know the Nigerians don't have an answer to that," Thomas-Greenfield told PBS. "They have been missing for more than 24 days. And I think the question that everyone has is where, where are the girls?"

She added that the U.S. government has "heard that speculation, that some may have been taken across the border into neighboring countries or maybe in different locations inside of Nigeria in the forest, and also in some small villages." Numerous villagers reported to  Nigerian media that they saw girls being ferried in trucks convoys over land and in canoes across Lake Chad.

Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. assistance, coming after a social media campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, is starting "by sending a multidimensional team in that will include the military, civilians, individuals that can work with the Nigerians on how to negotiate and how they can approach returning the girls without harming them."

"At this time, there are no plans that this is a military intervention. We are sending military advisers in to work besides the Nigerians and provide advice and support to the Nigerians in their efforts to retrieve these girls," she said. The Nigerian government has asked for assistance using drones and satellite imagery, and "there is commercial satellite imagery that could be available to assist in this effort and it is something that is being considered."

This many days later and with so many steps still under consideration, Thomas-Greenfield denied that the U.S. delayed aid.

"We started working with the Nigerian government on providing assistance several months ago. We have had conversations with military elements, as well as the national security adviser. I was out in Nigeria in December with General Rodriguez and other team members from USAID. We had some very productive discussions with the Nigerians on how we might be able to assist," she said, referring to the larger Boko Haram threat instead of this specific school raid. "Some of that assistance has already been provided to the Nigerians in terms of helping them coordinate their own intelligence information, giving them advice based on our own experience in having dealt with counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan."

She stressed that the U.S. designated Boko Haram, founded in 2002, as a foreign terrorist organization last November after years of devastating attacks. "And that gives us the ability to look at what kind of financing there they have and also to look at flows of money that they maybe have -- may have going in their direction. But this is a difficult task, as they are basically a group of bandits that are hiding among populations. And it's made it very difficult for the Nigerians to capture them," she added.