VICENZA, Italy — Some 80 U.S. Air Force personnel sent to Chad in Central Africa join a growing international effort to help find and rescue about 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by an Islamist extremist group last month.
The U.S. airmen are mostly crewmembers, maintenance specialists and security officers for unarmed Predator surveillance drones searching for the girls taken by the group, Boko Haram.
“These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” the White House said in a statement formally notifying Congress about the deployment.
For more than a week, the U.S. military has been flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft from Italy and other parts of Africa over densely forested regions in northeastern Nigeria, where the captors, who have said they’d sell the girls into slavery, are believed to be hiding them.
“Our sense at this point is that they’ve been dispersed into multiple smaller groups,” Amanda Dory, the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday. “They may or may not all be in Nigeria.”
Boko Haram was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department last year. The group, founded more than a decade ago, seeks to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. The intensity of its attacks increased in 2011 when large quantities of Libyan government weapons became available after rebel groups — backed by NATO air power — ousted the former regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The group has killed more than 3,000 people, experts say, and has carried out a number of kidnappings. Its members kidnapped a French family in northern Cameroon last year and just last week abducted at least 10 Chinese workers.
“They have committed one more attack, attacked businessmen and this comes after the French hostages were kidnapped,” Cameroon President Paul Biya said in Paris, according to Reuters. “As we speak we are searching for an Italian priest and a Canadian nun. The problem has become regional, if not a Western problem.”
The deployment to Chad brings more surveillance aircraft closer to the affected area. Those will operate from an air base long used by France, the former colonial power in Chad, in the capital of N’Djamena.
The unit will remain in Chad, “until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required,” the White House statement said.
The Chad deployment follows an advisory group of 16 military personnel sent to Nigeria by the U.S. Africa Command, along with FBI and intelligence officials, as part of a State Department effort to assist the Nigerian government in finding and recovering the missing girls.
U.S. Army Africa announced that it has sent personnel, along with special forces troops to Nigeria to train a Nigerian ranger battalion in combat operations. Previously, USARAF had trained African troops in peacekeeping operations.
“We will provide fundamentals of patrolling, small unit tactics, ambush/raid attack, movements of contact, night operations as opposed to the more traditional U.N. focused peace keeping tasks like patrolling, cordon and search, and establish checkpoints,” Lt. Col. Vinnie Garbarino, USARAF’s international military engagements officer, said on the USARAF website.
“We want these soldiers to take the fight to Boko Haram in the restricted terrain and really eliminate the threat within their borders so they can get back to peacekeeping operations.”
The Nigerian ranger battalion has been vetted for human rights abuses, as required by the Leahy Law — named for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy — which bars the U.S. from providing training or equipment to foreign troops or units who commit “gross human rights violations” such as rape, murder or torture.
The Nigerian military has carried out mass executions, burned hundreds of homes and committed other abuses in its battle against Boko Haram, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
While Boko Haram — which stands for “western education is evil” — is loathed by much of the population for its brutality, the Nigerian army also has a poor record for respecting human rights.
A State Department inspector general’s report last year said that of 1,377 Nigerian soldiers vetted in 2012 to receive training, 211 were rejected or suspended because of rights concerns.
Finding army units that have not been involved in abuses has been a “persistent and very troubling limitation” on American efforts to work with the Nigerians, Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.
Neighboring African nations expressed an interest last week at a meeting in Paris to, as Chad President Idriss Deby put it, “launch a war, a total war on Boko Haram,” according to Reuters.