WASHINGTON, May 17, 2014 — It is more than four weeks since Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls in Nigeria from an all-girls school. A few days later, the group took another eight girls, and there are reports of other abductions over the last several weeks.
The abductions have finally grabbed international attention, giving Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau access to the world stage.
The outraged international community has responded by mobilizing support to find the girls, sending intelligence and special forces units as well as drone surveillance planes into Nigeria.
Yet despite these efforts, the girls remain missing.
Following are five factors complicating the search for the missing girls:
1. Time and terrain: According to local sources, neither the Nigerian military nor the government responded to the crisis immediately. This gave the Islamist terrorists precious time to secure the victims away from their school. By the time the international community became involved, the girls had already been missing for several days. As with any crime, the case becomes more difficult to solve as it gets older. Leads dry up and physical evidence disappears.
A second problem is that the Sambisa Forest, adjacent to the area where the girls were taken, is almost 38,000 square miles of uncontrolled territory. The area is dense forest, and is an area well known to Boko Haram, but few others. It is approximately 600 miles from Abuja, the capital, with virtually no police or military presence.
The terrain is foreign to the military, police and security forces, while Boko Haram is extremely familiar for the well-armed terrorists, making a ground assault difficult.
2. Border escape hatch: Additionally, the Sambisa Forest is on the border between Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. There is no coordination between the Nigerian military and its neighbors, so Boko Haram can slip easily across the unmanned borders into other countries. This dramatically increases the search area, making it extremely difficult to locate the missing girls. CNN reports that local residents in the border area have “heard” that truckloads of young girls have gone into Cameroon. There are also reports that some girls have already been sold to wealthy men in Cameroon.
After major clashes with security forces in 2009, during which its leader was arrested and tortured and killed, Boko Haram went underground before emerging in 2010 as a jihadist group under Abubaker Shekau. During that time, it largely lived in the border area and took refuge in Cameroon.
3. Nigerian military: The Nigerian military has used heavy-handed tactics against the terrorist group and any affiliates. According to a recent human rights report, the military has burned homes, used torture against suspected terrorists, and even killing anyone remotely suspected of collusion with Boko Haram. In March, Amnesty International reported that the military arrested 600 individuals it suspected of ties to Boko Haram and executed them without trial. The government tactics have caused a severe lack of trust with the local population, which now generally refuses to work with the military. The government has virtually no human intelligence and little knowledge of the area where Boko Haram operates.
As an additional problem, the Nigerian military has little capability to fight terrorism. U.S. intelligence officers who have worked to train Nigerian officials lament their “almost complete lack of knowledge, technology or training.” They do not have basic intelligence gathering skills or equipment.
Nigerian military negotiating teams are also woefully untrained. Although the government officially denies it is negotiating with the terrorists, many U.S. officials believe there are at least some efforts by the government to negotiate and end the negative attention on the country. Even under the best of circumstances, this would be difficult, as AbubakarShekau has so far forbidden Boko Haram to hold any negotiations with the government. Boko Haram members who have attempted to negotiate have been beheaded.
4. Boko Haram training and ties: Although most of America never heard of Boko Haram until the kidnappings, the group has been around for several years, and has launched attacks on Christians and moderate Muslims since 2010. The group has also benefited from ties with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and at least three of its leaders are known to travel regularly to meet with al-Qaeda leaders in other countries.
Thanks to the training and advice Boko Haram has received over the years, they likely used good terrorist tradecraft after taking the girls. They almost certainly broke the girls into smaller groups and moved them to various locations.
The extensive web of ties to other terrorist organizations means Boko Haram could have moved the kidnapped girls almost anywhere – Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Mali or other locations – where they would blend into the local population.
Moreover, Boko Haram almost certainly is monitoring social networks, statements by international organizations and governments as well as media reports to understand what authorities are doing and to counter those moves.
Additionally, although the Nigerian military has little human intelligence on Boko Haram, the terrorist group has infiltrated the security forces and the government. According to the Nigerian government, there is “no doubt” Boko Haram has sources inside “every part of the government.” A recent example of Boko Haram’s excellent information happened in early May, when the government mobilized security forces from a town near the site of the kidnappings to explore surrounding areas for the girls. Boko Haram remained hidden until the security forces left, and then attacked the town.
5. Boko Haram’s ideology and structure: Abubakar Shekau is notoriously ruthless, and is so extreme that even al-Qaeda has distanced itself from him. Shekau provided Nigerian authorities with the location of Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf. Forces found Yusuf, tortured and killed him, opening the way for Shekau to take over. Shekau warned that he would kill anyone who remained loyal to Yusuf.
While his YouTube videos are a clear effort to gain attention – and probably to solidify his control over a fragmenting organization – Shekau is not concerned about international public opinion. Analysts say that this suggests that if authorities were close to locating the girls, there is a possibility Shekau could take “extreme measures” to provide for his own safety. These extreme measures could include killing the girls so he could be more mobile.
Boko Haram is not a monolithic organization. There are at least three other leaders maneuvering to control the organization. These three leaders have even deeper and wider ties with other terrorist organizations than Shekau does. If the girls were divided up and put under control of one of the other leaders, they could now be almost anywhere. Additionally, because of the different factions, it is unlikely that any single person – except possibly Shekau – knows the location of all the victims.