For the past few weeks, anyone who has opened a newspaper, turned on a television, or logged on to a social media account has come across the recent “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign.
The campaign, a call to release the hundreds of school girls currently held captive in Nigeria by the terrorist organization Boko Haram, quickly went viral across the United States and the world. While there is no question the situation is appalling, it leads to an interesting question; what should the United States’ role be when a less developed country is dealing with a major national security crisis or terrorist attack?
First, the basics:
On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped over 300 girls from their school in northern Nigeria (the exact numbers are unknown, and depend on whose account of the story you come across). The terrorists invaded the girls’ boarding school and are presumed to have taken the girls to a Boko Haram camp deep in the Nigerian bush. During the attack, between 39 and 55 girls managed to escape (the most commonly cited number is 53); it is estimated that about 276 girls remain hostages.
Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the schoolgirls. In a video estimated to have been filmed in early May, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau takes responsibility for the girls’ disappearance. In the video, Shekau clearly states “I abducted your girls” and “I will sell them on the market.” In the weeks since their abduction, his threat to sell the girls into slavery has been widely circulated.
At this point, it is almost certain that the girls are alive. Another video was released earlier this week explaining the motive for the kidnapping; in the video, which shows about 100 of the girls alive and praying at what looks to be one of the group’s camps, Shekau, states “I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured.”
Where does the United States fit into the picture?
Boko Haram is a powerful militant organization whose influence has grown in recent years; in fact, just last November, the United States officially recognized Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. As I discussed in a November post on Transparent Policy, however, the United States’ designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization was largely a symbolic gesture; it was essentially a vow to punish Americans/citizens involved with the group, and to avoid funding the organization at all costs. There was no commitment to assist victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, thwart its future plans, or assist with working towards dismantling the organization.
While the viral nature of the social media campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls” has drawn a great deal of attention to the plight of these girls, particularly amongst groups not typically interested in international affairs or national security issues, the campaign alone is very clearly not what is going to get these girls released. While the campaign will spread worldwide awareness about the capture of these girls, international cooperation is what will (hopefully) bring them back.
The United States prides itself on being a world superpower and is often cited as one of the most powerful countries in the world. With that, however, comes a high level of responsibility.
At the moment, the United States is using drones and manned surveillance aircrafts to search for the girls. However, despite the United States’ intelligence-gathering efforts, a Pentagon spokesman announced on Wednesday that we are not sharing intelligence with Nigeria’s armed forces because the countries do not have intelligence-sharing protocols in place.
Alice Friend, the African Affairs Director for the DoD said,
“We have sought assurances from them… that they will use any information that we pass to them from this (intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) support in a manner consistent with international humanitarian and human rights law.”
As of this weekend, however, Nigeria has not provided these assurances.
How, then, can the United States help a nation that is not interested in receiving the assistance, or even negotiating parameters for the United States’ aid? The answer, in short, is we can’t.
Legally, the United States can take no action within Nigeria without its explicit request (or at a minimum, consent). The only means of getting Nigeria to take any modicum of serious action, or to allow the United States to do so, is through persuasion. Essentially, this is what “bring back our girls” is attempting to do; create enough pressure to persuade Nigeria to take action. It is doubtful, however, that the campaign will create enough pressure to make any real difference.
While the likelihood of success is still minimal, at best, the most effective tactics are likely official actions. For example, the United States could apply diplomatic pressure or incentives, like promising additional military aid or intelligence support.
Thus, while the “bring back our girls” campaign has drawn an extraordinary amount of attention to the kidnapping of these Nigerian girls, the reality of the situation is that, until Nigeria wants our assistance, there is very little the United States can do aside from continuing to monitor the situation.
Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research