On Wednesday, Barack Obama informed Congressthat he was dispatching 80 troops to Chad to aid in the search for over 200 girls that the Nigerian Jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped from a primary school in mid-April. When Obama sent 150 personnel tosearchfor the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the objective was clear: to aid in the capture of one of the most wanted men on earth, in response to a public advocacy campaign turned Kony into an unlikely household name in the U.S.In Nigeria, the U.S.’s objectives are somewhat less straightforward.
According to experts Business Insider consulted, including active military and U.S. military trainers, the U.S. personnel sent to Chad are likely there for one specific purpose: aerial surveillance. Boko Haram operates over a vast geographic area that straddles international borders. Global Hawk unarmed surveillance drones, or an MC-12 sensor aircraft, could help establish rudimentary information about the group’s whereabouts, structure and tendencies that the U.S. and its West African allies simply don’t have at the moment.
“Right now, we’re in the needle in a haystack phase,” Rudy Atallah, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, expert in West African security, and CEO of White Mountain Research told Business Insider. “Who are these guys, where are they, and how do they operate?”
Under optimal conditions, with established supply lines and pre-positioned support staff and security, 80 personnel would theoretically be enough to operate up to a half-dozen Global Hawks or MC-12s. But yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama had sent the troops “in support of one of our intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets … an unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicle supporting the search for the girls.”
The 80 personnel could include chaplains, medical staff, radar and maintenance experts, and logistics staff.
The U.S. is at a basic, intelligence-gathering phase of its efforts against Boko Haram, which was only designated a terrorist organisation in 2013. A lack of good human intelligence, along with the absence of an existing American military infrastructure in Chad and the U.S.’s possible reluctance to share intelligence with Nigerian authorities, means that efforts against the jihadist organisation are barely at ground-level.
“The Nigerian system is incredibly corrupt and leaks like a sieve,” explains Atallah, noting that there are likely people within the military and government structure that support Boko Haram. “That’s why we’re not sharing anything but bare-bones help with the Nigerians. We have to figure out a way to establish a mechanism … to design a rescue operation and figure out how it would involve the Nigerians and potentially other nations in the region.”
So the Chad deployment is a necessary first step in planning a rescue — even though an attempt at recovering the kidnapped schoolgirls could still be far in the future.
At the same time, the Obama administration committed scores of soldiers to the search for Kony, an effort that had little direct bearing on U.S. national security. Boko Haram has various alleged ties to Al Qaeda leadership, and follows a hardcore Jihadist ideology reminiscent of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Shabab, Jabhat al Nusra, and other extremist organisations. It threatens to destabilize Nigeria, an oil-producing U.S. ally. And as this AFP infographic shows, Boko Haram is becoming deadlier and more ambitious:
The Chad deployment doesn’t mean that the U.S. will be sending in Special Operations Forces to rescue the kidnapped girls any time soon. But it’s a sign of a new, if still somewhat nascent, recognition of the severity of the Boko Haram threat — and the U.S.’s interest in countering it.
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