A senior State Department official told reporters on background yesterday that the U.S. truly does not know where more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are as they canvass an area roughly the size of West Virginia.
But, the official said, “Secretary Kerry’s engagement on this really has galvanized international support and activity on this.”
“We were – our team was the first on the ground to support the Nigerians, but as you know, other countries are – have also come to that cause.”
The U.S. received permission from Nigeria to conduct reconnaissance flights in the area around Borno state, but it was unclear if Washington has sought or been granted permission to look across the borders of Chad and Cameroon; the State Department official simply said they are “in communication with all the governments bordering Nigeria.” Villagers reported weeks ago that they saw girls being taken across the Nigerian border in convoys or canoes across Lake Chad.
“We are continuing to work with the Nigerians to help locate the girls. We really don’t know where the girls are. We’re talking about an area about the size of West Virginia, compared – other people have compared it to the size of all of New England. Essentially, finding them is the first critical step. So the speculation about the different kinds of things that could have happened to them is just that. It’s speculation at this point. And the threats are awful, just that – so much coming from Boko Haram. So I really can’t expand on that. We don’t have information, and I can’t tell you have they been split up or not,” the official said.
About 30 U.S. government personnel are on the ground assisting the Nigerian government. “We will not have more than 30 as part of the special support team that’s working with the Nigerians,” the official added.
The U.S. will be participating in a Saturday summit in Paris on terrorism in North Africa. “The United States has already been very forthcoming and clear about the kind of approach that needs to be taken in – to counter terrorism. You can’t – there can’t just be a military response; you have to have a holistic response. You have to deal with legitimate grievances that might be in a region. You also have to deal with alternatives to violent extremism.”
The official also defended the Obama administration’s response to the school raid and kidnappings a month ago.
“Frankly, when our Embassy first found out about the abduction, the Embassy, as part of – immediately contacted the Nigerian Government to say – for an update, to find out any information, to find out what, if anything, the Nigerian Government might want to ask of the United States. And at the time, the Nigerian Government was also getting its own information and trying determine what it was going to do,” the official said.
“So we – the United States – we don’t consider that there was a lag in our attention to this. There was a lag in the information getting from the school to the capital, but once reports started coming out, we, of course, checked in with the capital to find out details and to find out what we could do. That’s my answer.”