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.
Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. has “had a number of discussions with the African Union and with the regional players across the continent to address the scourge of terrorism that is taking place in a number of locations, whether it’s in Somalia and Kenya with Al-Shabab, with the counter-LRA effort, and also with Boko Haram and AQIM and al-Qaeda.”
At a November subcommittee hearing, Thomas-Greenfield testified that Boko Haram “has exploited religious rhetoric in an attempt to justify its violence, casting the state as hopelessly corrupt and un-Islamic.”
“Boko Haram’s activities call our attention not just to violence, but also to poverty and inequality in Nigeria,” she said, adding that the U.S. government is “concerned by reports that some Nigerian security forces have committed gross human rights violations in response to Boko Haram.”
When questioned by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) about the State Department’s characterization of the Islamist terror group’s motives, Thompson-Greenfield responded that “terrorist organizations harm everyone.”
“As they have killed Christians in the name of Islam, they’ve also killed Muslims in the name of Islam,” she said. “While they do have a religious bent to what they do, they are non-discriminating in their attacks on people.”
The State Department has admitted it doesn’t know much about Boko Haram from the inside, placing its membership estimates at anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand.
A former State Department official told ABC News yesterday that debates within Washington about how much of a threat was posed by Boko Haram delayed the group’s terrorist designation for years.
“At the time — and I still think it’s very true — we didn’t move on Boko Haram because we thought it would give them a recruitment boost,” former Obama administration Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said.