The U.S. military is in “the golden age of Special Operations.” As the war in Afghanistan progressed, Special Operations Forces (SOF) undertook an increasing share of combat, as the U.S.’s over-decade-long presence in the country pivoted away from conventional war-fighting activities and towards “light footprint” operations and state-building. In the wider world, successes like the Bin Ladin raid and movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips” brought SOF and its successes to the wider public consciousness.
It’s little surprise that many have seen SOF as a potential solution to a jihadist group’s kidnapping of over 200 school girls in Nigeria — including senior members of Congress. Senator John McCain told The Daily Beast that if it were up to him, he “certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country.” Fellow Republican Senator Susan Collins said she “would like to see Special Forces deployed to help rescue these young girls.” Meanwhile, Diane Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, the top ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
told Time “that they would support sending in special forces under certain conditions: Feinstein would send in the additional assistance only if Nigeria requests it, and Chambliss would do so with our allies.”
But would an American SOF operation in northeastern Nigeria — in an effort aimed at freeing over 200 people from a militant group with a history of executing its hostages, and in a place where the U.S. military isn’t forward deployed — actually work? One SOF insider assured Business Insider that a potential rescue is within the U.S.’s military capabilities. A rescue is possible, so long as the political will for a U.S. operation is there and the intelligence groundwork in place. “The real difficulty is that in those type of situations, it takes a lot of detailed intelligence and planning to figure out where hostages are and how they could be rescued. It has to be done in a very careful manner,” he says.
But gathering this intelligence could take a while. James Forest, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, explained some of the intelligence considerations that would go into any SOF operation in Nigeria. “You need to know who has influence in a particular area, who defers to whom in Northern Nigeria, which tribal and clerical leaders have power and influence in that local community.” Beyond basic human intelligence, planners would need to know “what the terrain looks like and whether there safe landing zones — are the places where a unit would be exposed to enemy fire? Are there places where you can find drinkable water for the survival of the team?”
It helps that the “golden age” of SOF has given the U.S. military experience in hostage rescue. In 2008, over 60 SOF soldiers undertook a daring night rescue of a kidnapped American engineer in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have rescued aid workers in Somalia, and even Americans held captive at sea.
An SOF solution to the Nigeria abductions might be possible — but that doesn’t mean it will happen. A U.S. SOF operation would likely take place with the help of the Nigerian military. As University of Ohio professor Brandon Kendhammer, an expert on Nigerian politics, points out, the country’s army has a long record of atrocities in the fight against Boko Haram. “It would be really bad for us if the Nigerians committed acts of violence against civilians, and U.S. troops were around when that happened,” he says.
Kendhammer also worries about potential blowback from a U.S. operation, which might galvanize support for a group that many in northern Nigeria have actually turned against. “The level of violence has been so great over the last several years that that they’re not able to recruit in the same way that they were before,” says Kendhammer.
An SOF operation to bring back the kidnapped girls would be tactically and politically risky. But American “soft footprint”-type tactics are already being used in the hunt for the kidnapped girls, even without a full-on rescue attempt. A small team of Special Forces was sent to Nigeria to help train their counterparts in the Nigerian military, and high-end U.S. spy aircraft are already involved in search efforts.
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