Why the U.S. Has Few Options To Help Find Kidnapped Girls in Nigeria

South Africans in Johannesburg protest against the abduction of 270 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram.

Ben Curtis/AP

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South Africans in Johannesburg protest against the abduction of 270 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram.

Finding more than 270 kidnapped girls will be a challenge in Nigeria’s lawless northeast. By Ben Watson and Kedar Pavgi

For those watching closely, last month’s kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria comes both as no surprise and with abundant challenges.

Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, warned in a video last May that he would begin kidnapping girls, in retaliation for the Nigerian military capturing his wife and children. Shekau, who has led the Islamic extremist group since 2009, has remained elusive as the manhunt for him—and the kidnapped girls he has vowed to sell—intensifies.

Since the April 14 abduction of the girls, worldwide attention has grown and many have asked why the U.S. didn’t get involved sooner. Just this week, the Pentagon deployed 10 military logistics and communications specialists to join a small team of U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic assets to help search for the girls.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Defense Department has “made repeated offers of assistance, and it was only this week that Nigeria accepted.”

Kirby stressed to reporters Friday that this is not a U.S. military operation. The team will work out of the U.S. embassy in Lagos in an “advise and assist” role to the Nigerians. “Time is at a premium. And there’s no question that we’re racing against the clock here,” he said.

(Read More: U.S. Labels Nigeria’s Boko Haram as Terrorists)

Current and former defense officials acknowledged that it will be extremely difficult to locate the girls.

“Geography is not on the side of the Nigerians,” Kirby said.

Ret. Gen. Carter Ham, former commander of U.S. Africa Command, said the U.S. can provide help with surveillance and hostage negotiation. “If, as I suspect, the girls have been dispersed,” Ham said, “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,” he told NPR on Thursday.

Ham also said the U.S. could send drones to help look for the girls, and members of Boko Haram. “That’ll be a difficult challenge but we have surveillance platforms. There’s signals intelligence and other capabilities that would be helpful,” Ham said. But Kirby said so far there have been no discussions about sending any further assets beyond the team of personnel to assist in the search.

The U.S. has approximately 50 military personnel stationed at the consulate in Lagos and about 20 Marines are currently in Nigeria conducting exercises on amphibious landing tactics with the Nigerian military.

U.S. interests in Boko Haram aren’t just tied to the hunt for the missing girls. The group, which opposes all Western influence, was designated by the U.S. a terrorist organization last year, after Shekau vowed to attack the United States. The U.S. promptly put a $7 million bounty on his head.

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