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U.S. Team To Assist Nigeria In Locating Kidnapped School Girls


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Let's talk through what the United States may be able to do in searching for kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The U.S. has promised assistance, Nigerian officials have now accepted. This would involve the United State more overtly than before in fighting Boko Haram, the extremist group that says it took the girls.

We've brought in the man who, until recently, commanded U.S. military operations in Africa. General Carter Ham was the head U.S. Africa command. General Ham, thanks for coming by this morning.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: Good morning, Steve. Thanks.

INSKEEP: OK. So what assistance makes sense in this situation?

HAM: Well, I think there are a couple of ways the United States and others could be of great assistance to the Nigerian officials, and it is important to remember that this must be Nigerian-led and is Nigerian-led. From a military side, I think the U.S. can help with intelligence collection that would be supportive of, first of all, finding the girls.

I suspect they've been probably dispersed by now. That'll be a difficult challenge but we have surveillance platforms. There's signals intelligence and other capabilities that would be helpful. On the civilian side, I think that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a legal attache in Nigeria in helping the Nigerian officials through hostage rescue, negotiations, and care of hostages once released.

So there are a lot of capabilities the U.S. government broadly can bring to assist the Nigerians.

INSKEEP: Now, we don't know for sure but you're saying you think it's likely that something like 300 girls at this point have been dispersed. Which means the possibility of some dramatic raid to rescue them would just not be very likely at this point. Is that right?

HAM: Well, I suspect. I don't know but I do suspect that the Boko Haram group has probably dispersed the group. And I think it's certainly probable that some number have been moved across the very porous borders with Nigeria's neighboring countries.

INSKEEP: Does that add to the complexity that you could be talking about dealing with not just the government of Nigeria here?

HAM: Absolutely. This will require a regional approach. Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and perhaps others working in concert with Nigeria to help find these girls and bring them back to safety.

INSKEEP: How easy is it for the United State to collaborate with the Nigerian government?

HAM: Well, it's not hard at all, now that the Nigerians have accepted the offer from the United States and from other countries as well. So if there is a willingness on the part of the Nigerians to accept help - and certainly the offer is there from the United States, the U.K., France, China, and others - I think this could be a highly effective collaborative multinational effort.

INSKEEP: Although you do have a government that's been accused of massive corruption. The president, Goodluck Jonathon, was much criticized. He got rid of the head of his own central bank when the guy complained too much about corruption. Are you confident that they can deliver their end of a bargain?

HAM: Well, the capability is certainly there and I think it's fair to question the acts of the Nigerian government early on in this situation. We all recall the day of the abductions or the day after when there was this statement that most of the girls had been released. That created not only confusion but perhaps created an opportunity for Boko Haram to move the girls further and outside of government control.

So there's - I think it's fair to question early steps by the Nigerian government, but the fact that now they have accepted offers from international partners I think is promising.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand some of the complexities of the situation because you have this Islamist group, it's not all that well known outside - or all that well understood outside of Nigeria - Boko Haram. They have targeted Western educated elites, if I can try to summarize it there. Is it a little bit delicate for the West to get involved in Nigeria? Will that in some way discredit the Nigerian government against these rebels?

HAM: Well, there's always a risk of unintended consequences, and I think that certainly the risk that you portray could happen. Some are concerned about, you know, does U.S. help in this matter, does that - might that cause Boko Haram to focus more on U.S. interests. And I think that's also a risk. But in the larger sense I think if we can help Nigeria find these girls, and I think we can, then personally I'm glad to see us make that effort.

INSKEEP: You mentioned hostage negotiators. Is it possible to negotiate with a group like this?

HAM: Well, I think with the senior leadership, with the central leadership of Boko Haram, a guy like Abubakar Shekau, probably not going to negotiate with him.

But if, as I suspect, the girls have been dispersed, then that means that some girls are probably held by younger, less experienced, and perhaps less ideologically committed individuals. And some of those might be affected by good hostage negotiation. I think that the key point is that we want to make sure that Nigeria has the full range of capabilities to try to get these girls returned to their families.

INSKEEP: General, I want to ask about another subject that's in the news - the 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed, including the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens. And as you know, the House of Representatives votes today on a select committee which would investigate this situation once again. And I need to recall for people first that you were in command, in Africa command, when this happened.

And second, that a retired general who worked for you testified last week that he wasn't sure how the Americans could've been rescued during this attack on September 11, 2012 but, quote, "We should have tried." Do you look back and feel the United States' military could have or should have done more?

HAM: Well, as I think back about that event as it was unfolding, we did respond. And as I have, and as others have stated to the accountability review board, to a number of congressional groups both in public and in private hearings, forces were put into motion. But the nature of the mission changed over time and we certainly were working against very significant time-distance factors.

INSKEEP: Meaning that a lot of the troops you were talking about were outside...

HAM: That's right. Mostly Europe-based and you're talking a matter of several hours to get to Libya during that timeframe in a situation that, at least the initial attack, began and then largely subsided over about an hour. So not much time to respond very quickly. But the good news is, I think, after - one of the lessons learned from the attacks on Benghazi was to provide more forces to the current commander of Africa command and have a better response capability for instances in the future.

But certainly not right now sufficient forces postured to be able to respond to any diplomatic facility across the vast African continent in a short period of time.

INSKEEP: Was part of the problem here that in this incident, which did last several hours, that even if you could get forces there it would've been difficult to figure out what they would do on the ground? Was that part of the problem for you?

HAM: Well, to me at the time it was more about the nature of the mission changing. First an attack on a diplomatic facility. That largely subsided and we thought that we were in potentially a hostage rescue situation, remembering that Ambassador Stevens was for several hours unaccounted for.

INSKEEP: Um-hum.

HAM: The right forces were put in motion to try to effect that. Once his body was recovered then it was largely a recovery mission in support of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli to move the people back from Benghazi to Tripoli. So there was more, to me at the time, the changing nature of the mission more than anything else.

INSKEEP: General, thanks very much.

HAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: General Carter Ham is retired from the United States Army. He was the head of the U.S. Africa command. That command, by the way, is now going to be involved in the hunt for about 300 school girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. And we'll continue following that story and bring you more as we learn it right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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