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Hunt for abducted Nigerian girls 'unlikely to have happy ending'

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Joe Brock

(Reuters) - Nigeria's hunt for more than 200 abducted schoolgirls is not all that it seems. In public, an international operation is gathering pace while behind the scenes, officials say it is unlikely to deliver the success that global opinion demands.

The United States and Britain are helping Nigerian forces in the effort to liberate the girls taken from their school in Borno state a month ago by Boko Haram Islamist militants.

The pressure for results is huge, with the likes of Michelle Obama and film star Angelina Jolie supporting a social media campaign operating under the Twitter tag #BringBackOurGirls.

Washington has sent surveillance aircraft as well as assigning medical, intelligence, counter-terrorism and communications advisers to the mission.

Nigeria's Missing Girls: Who's Searching and How

But officials have little idea where the girls are, and acknowledge that if they are found, any rescue attempt would be fraught with problems. On top of that, morale is shaky among some of the Nigerian troops involved in the hunt who already have experience of Boko Haram as a formidable foe.

"We commend the effort by the #BringBackOurGirls protesters but it doesn't fit with the reality of the security situation we are facing," said a senior Nigerian military source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign experts are also pessimistic that the girls can be extricated from the rebels' clutches and returned to their homes in Nigeria's remote northeast where Boko Haram operates.

"I think a rescue is currently unlikely and unfeasible," said Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at U.S. counter-terrorism institution CTC Sentinel.

Until Monday, nothing had been seen of the girls since they were snatched from the village of Chibok near Nigeria's borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Then Boko Haram released a video showing more than 100 girls together in a rural location. In it, rebel leader Abubakar Shekau offered to exchange them for captured militants.

The video raised hopes that their location could be found using ground forces, state-of-the-art intelligence and surveillance planes.

Then an operation could be staged, perhaps with forces swooping from the sky like a British raid in Sierra Leone in 2000 to free soldiers held by militiamen, or Israeli commandoes' rescue of passengers from a jet hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

However, such a scenario is unlikely this time. One source with knowledge of the search said the footage was probably taken at least 10 days ago, if Boko Harma's past videos are any guide. By now, the girls could be somewhere else as a group, or dispersed to many places.


The Sambisa forest, Boko Haram's stronghold, is a first target but it is not conducive to aerial search because it covers 60,000 square km (23,000 square miles), more than twice the size of Rwanda. The rebels know this area intimately and could spread the girls among local families, making them virtually undetectable by conventional security forces.

Two U.S. national security sources said initially the girls were separated into around three large groups but were subsequently scattered in smaller groups. Other experts said they could be in mountains near Gwoza on the Cameroon border.

If this is the case, some girls might be found before others, posing a dilemma for would-be rescuers.

"In the past, Boko have threatened, and maybe actually gone ahead with, killing hostages upon sensing the merest hint of possible rescue operations," said a security source. Rescuing some girls could add to danger faced by others still captive.

Another problem is time. Britain's minister responsible for African affairs, Mark Simmonds, said on Wednesday that it was "early days" in the rescue operation, yet the abduction happened on April 14 so rebels have had ample time to prepare for an international response.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official criticized Nigeria on Thursday for being too slow to adapt to the threat of Boko Haram.


An incident this week highlighted the problems of the Nigerian army, whose 1st and 7th divisions have been deployed to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, to confront the rebels.

On Tuesday, gunmen ambushed a unit returning to Maiduguri from Chibok, killing at least four soldiers. Rebels were also killed. The next day soldiers fired into the air at Maiduguri barracks to protest about what they said was poor leadership.

Defense headquarters quickly stated that the situation had been resolved, but soldiers told Reuters they remained angry.

"These Boko Haram have special forces. They know how to shoot and maintain their grounds more than us. What is making it worse is our superior officers who are insensitive to the plight of the troops," said a soldier, who declined to be identified.

"We are tired of this whole thing because we are being killed every day and we don't get the required support and care from our superiors," another soldier said.

President Goodluck Jonathan will visit Chibok on Friday, senior government officials said.

Even coordinating an international effort faces difficulties in Nigeria, which recently overtook South Africa as the continent's biggest economy. Nigeria has close ties with Western powers but has historically resisted foreign military involvement on its soil.

One possible sign of differing approaches is that Simmonds, rather than the president himself, announced that Jonathan had ruled out any prisoner exchange for the girls' release. Nigerian officials have since declined to comment.

Ultimately, the girls' best hope may lie in dialogue but the road to talks remains uncertain because the rebels do not form a unified group.

Boko Haram is faceless and even Shekau heads just one of several loosely coordinated groups with differing objectives, said a senior official with knowledge of the northeast.

A Nigerian presidential committee set up last year for talks with the rebels dealt last year with Boko Haram proxies. But they were later denounced by other Boko Haram militants as impostors, according to Minister of Special Duties Tanimu Turaki, who leads the committee.

One security source in Abuja cautioned against raising false hopes. "It is time we removed the thought of a very happy ending to this situation," the source said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja, Isaac Abrak in Maiduguri and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by David Stamp)

Join the discussion

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hiskander May 16 2014 at 4:39 AM

These girls are forced into conversion to Islam.... Tells you something about these Boko Haram barbarians...

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2 replies
onionson hiskander May 16 2014 at 6:14 AM

Yes, they are good Muslims.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
houcasey hiskander May 16 2014 at 7:36 AM

and the girls should strangle their sons at birth.

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Exercise TJ May 16 2014 at 8:23 AM

This is about the girls...human trafficing is an issue worldwide...no need to bring our political views into this.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
jebutler May 16 2014 at 8:24 AM

Well I thought for sure the #hashtags of those rich and powerful Americans would have worked. Guess not, just another "feel good" left sided assumption for publicity is all.
Now if they all contributed one million each and put a bouty on the Boko Haram heads they should be home in a week!! Oh wait, I mean't to say working peoples taxes

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1 reply
seabasskj jebutler May 16 2014 at 9:01 AM

I agree. How do you do anything greater than holding up a hashtag sign? If that didn't work, I'm afraid nothing else will.

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brrs137 May 16 2014 at 8:28 AM

I once had a discussion with a highly educated Nigerian American. With anger in his voice her informed me that there is no reason for Nigerians to be starving. The government was extremely corrupt as to be stealing form Nigeria's people. These terrorists do what they want because they can.

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medicalmanage May 16 2014 at 8:33 AM

Islam is a disease that must be removed from this Planet. Search it out in every corner and destroy it.

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1 reply
jlcoct16 medicalmanage May 16 2014 at 9:42 AM

Yes, because Islam is the real reason for this tragedy. I do love how prejudiced individuals, such as yourself, don't seem to link their hate speech to situations such as this one. I recognize your attitude toward a religion that is older that both this country as well as most Christian denominations, but it saddens me that such hatred is felt towards our brothers in Abraham. I pray that you are not a Christian, because you obviously don't share Jesus's viewpoints of loving all.

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slaterlabsmot May 16 2014 at 8:38 AM

Boko Haram? Isn't that a retirement community in Florida? Oh wait, that's Boca Raton.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
slaterlabsmot May 16 2014 at 8:41 AM

Would it be too much to ask that while the search teams are looking for the abducted girls, could they please find that Nigerian Prince that wants my help in getting his fortune out of the country and needs my SS # & banking information to do so???

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1 reply
kramjo slaterlabsmot May 16 2014 at 10:00 AM

yes, he owes me too

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luckymrdave May 16 2014 at 8:41 AM

God helps those that help themselves! The Nigerian Army should handle this it unfortunately is a problem for their country. Every nation or country has wars, conflicts and other horrid happenings unless it is consuming doom we handle our own. Send $ to the funds helping? Geez, how much money do you suppose we can keep giving away?

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3 replies
Mark May 16 2014 at 8:44 AM

So very sad. Living in the US hides certain things from us. But at least we know the politicians overall live well here.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
pllove49 Mark May 16 2014 at 8:52 AM

And politicians probably live well over there too...

Flag Reply +2 rate up
trfyol May 16 2014 at 9:15 AM

I smell another war coming on: the only way to suppress a free society is to keep it in a constant state of war. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm?

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1 reply
j donley trfyol May 16 2014 at 9:50 AM

"War is the constant state of man" - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, quoting many others before him.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
1 reply
rjggoldstandard j donley May 16 2014 at 10:41 AM

Moron is the constant state of Rumsfeld.

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