from Africa in Transition

U.S. Military Engagement in the Hunt for the Nigerian School Girls, Its Size and Meaning

May 22, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

United States

Heads of State and Government


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Boko Haram’s kidnapping of up to three hundred school girls has thoroughly engaged U.S. public opinion over the past few weeks. American narratives of its significance range from the humanitarian to persecution of Christians to the deprivation of educational opportunity for women to a resurgence of al Qaeda.

The inadequacies of the Nigerian military and corruption within the Nigerian government have been profiled by Obama administration officials in Congressional hearings. Under these circumstances, already some in the Congress are urging that the United States must do more directly if the girls are to be rescued, and administration officials say that the United States will do whatever is necessary. “Mission creep” seems all but inevitable in a situation with so many unknowns and so little American area expertise.

There is an interagency team currently stationed in Abuja, which is consulting with the Nigerians on what assistance the U.S. could provide. A formal intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries has been signed. And U.S. military support personnel have been sent to Chad.

The Nigerian media is already reporting signs of backlash against American criticism and perceptions of international assertiveness within Nigeria’s borders. Nigerian military officers yesterday claimed to know where the girls are being held. They also stated that “foreign specialists” have provided no concrete assistance in the search for the girls, and a northern Nigerian imam has warned of an Islamic back lash should foreign troops go into northern Nigeria.

Under these circumstances, the New York Times provides a useful breakdown of the U.S. military presence. It provides a benchmark against which future increases can be measured. According to the Times, the U.S. has sent eighty troops to Chad, mostly to support the unmanned drones and surveillance aircraft being used in the search for the girls. In addition there are about thirty specialists from the Departments of State and Defense and the FBI to advise the Nigerians. According to the Times, about half are military with medical, counter terrorism, intelligence, and communications specialties.

These are not large numbers in comparison with other U.S. deployments. But, the numbers are large enough to show that the United States is engaged in what amounts to a struggle between the Nigerian government and its domestic Islamist insurrection. No doubt in some quarters they will be seen as further evidence of an American “war on Islam.” It remains to be seen whether the U.S. team is large enough to have an impact on the rescue of the girls.