The U.S. has begun conducting aerial surveillance over Nigeria to help track down more than 200 girls who were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram, U.S. defense officials said Tuesday.
At the request of the Nigerian government, the U.S. has conducted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights with fixed wing military aircraft Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday. The flights are focusing on the northeastern area of the country, Warren said.
Boko Haram kidnapped the girls in a raid on a school in the northeastern town of Chibok last month.
Warren would not specify the number or types of aircraft involved, nor discuss what country they took off from.
“They’ve been in Africa, so we didn’t move assets onto the continent from outside of the continent, but that’s all we’re going to get into” he said.
On Monday, U.S. officials said the U.S. was flying manned surveillance aircraft in support of the international effort to find and rescue the girls, whose abduction has galvanized a worldwide response.
It was not clear whether drones were part of that effort.
U.S. Africa Command operates a drone base in neighboring Niger where the mission has been focused on assisting French troops operating against Islamic militants in Mali. Surveillance aircraft also have been utilized in central Africa in the search for warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the long-hunted Lord’s Resistance Army.
Nigeria is the 14th largest country in Africa, with a land mass of more than 350,000 square miles — or roughly twice the size of California.
Aircraft, either manned or unmanned, will be particularly helpful if officials have a general idea of the girls’ location, said Samuel J. Brannen, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on unmanned systems.
“If you really don’t know where they are, then it’s just a needle in a haystack,” Brannen said. “But if you have a general sense of where they are, it’s a good way to survey a huge amount of territory. We’ve gotten very good over the last 10 years at finding groups hostile to our interests in austere environments.”
Resources for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, are limited, however, particularly in Africa, he said.
“We know that the demand signal, globally, for ISR far exceeds the supply, and that especially is the case in AFRICOM,” Brannen said.
Boko Haram has been operating in Nigeria for several years now, but the group has steadily become more violent, conducting scores of bombings across Nigeria in the past year. The group also has a record of targeting children. In February, Boko Haram — which stands for “western education is sinful” — is believed to have killed 59 boys in an attack on a school in northern Nigeria.
On Monday, a Boko Haram leader suggested in an unauthenticated video message that the girls could be freed in exchange for the release of imprisoned militants being held by Nigerian authorities. So far, the Nigerian government hasn’t indicated whether it would accept the offer. The U.S. generally opposes such swaps.
Last week, the Obama administration ordered a team of U.S. experts to Nigeria to serve as advisers to the Nigerian government in areas such as intelligence analysis, logistics and hostage negotiations. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the team includes 10 Pentagon planners and advisers who already were in Nigeria, and an additional seven sent from AFRICOM, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
France, the United Kingdom and China also have pledged support.
Warren said AFRICOM commander Gen. David Rodriquez was in Nigeria on Monday and Tuesday to meet with U.S. and Nigerian officials. The trip, to discuss U.S.-Nigerian partnership on security matters, was planned before the kidnap of the girls, he said.
While Boko Haram is believed to have loose connections with other terror groups in Africa, the militants have shown no sign of launching attacks beyond Nigerian territory.