“We condemn the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram as an unconscionable crime and intend do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” President Obama and the leaders of Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy said in a statement.
The statement, which covered a range of foreign policy issues from Ukraine to Syria, did not elaborate, but it did include a broader commitment to promote human rights, including religious freedom, and to end discrimination and violence against women, including “child, early and forced marriage.”
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau earlier threatened to sell the abducted secondary school girls – 85 percent of whom are Christians, according to the Nigerian government – as sex slaves or “marry” them off.
In mid-May a State Department-led interagency group including 16 military personnel from U.S. Africa Command was deployed in Nigeria to aid the effort to locate and free the around 280 missing girls. The Pentagon reported that the U.S. military was flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over the area, which includes remote parts of north-eastern Nigeria and territory in neighboring Chad and Cameroon.
The Nigerian military claimed last week to have established the girls’ whereabouts, but to be constrained by safety concerns from taking action. The State Department said it had no “independent information” to back up the claim, which was also met by considerable skepticism in Nigeria.
The authorities’ handling of the episode – and the Islamist group’s violent campaign in general – has been widely criticized. (A major opposition party has called President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration “incompetent, clueless and rudderless.”)
The most recent action to draw strong criticism was a statement Monday by the top police official in Abuja banning – purportedly for security reasons – what have become regular public demonstrations by campaigners rallying under the name “#BringBackOurGirls.”
Following an outcry the police backtracked, saying in a statement there was no ban, but advising citizens to exercise caution, citing “a recent intelligence report of a likely infiltration and hijack of otherwise innocuous and peaceful protests by some criminal elements having links with insurgents.”
A senior government information official, Mike Omeri, said Wednesday the government was “totally committed and focused towards ensuring that our beloved children, kidnapped girls, are returned safe and sound.”
“As we said before, all options in line with international best practices are open in this case,” the News Agency of Nigeria quoted Omeri as telling a briefing in the capital, saying that he indicated that negotiating with the terrorists was one such option.
Officials have given confused and sometimes contradictory statements over recent weeks about whether the government would consider doing a deal with Boko Haram.
In a propaganda video released on May 12, Shekau offered to exchange some of the captives for terrorists held in Nigerian prisons. He said the offer only applied to those who had not yet converted to Islam.
Over the weeks since the mass abduction Boko Haram has carried out numerous further attacks, killing well over 500 civilians in bombings and armed assaults in central and northern Nigeria and seizing control of villages in the north-eastern state of Borno.
In one attack this week, terrorists disguised as soldiers fired on a crowd in a church compound in Borno, according to a BBC report.
Borno, the state where the mass schoolgirl abduction took place, is one of three in the north where Jonathan a year ago declared a state of emergency and vowed to defeat the terrorists.
Boko Haram, a nickname for the group, roughly translates as “Western education is prohibited.” Its full name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (which can be translated Congregation of the People of Islamic Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad), and it has waged a violent campaign against Christians and government targets since 2009.
The terrorists are demanding the imposition of shari’a across Nigeria, a country where some 40 percent of the population identifies as Christian, and has declared a jihad against democracy, non-Islamic education and Christianity.
On May 22 the U.N. Security Council added Boko Haram to its list of al-Qaeda-linked organizations that are subject to an arms embargo and asset freeze.
The committee overseeing the sanctions list said the group had a relationship with the terrorist network’s North African franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and that some of its fighters had fought alongside Al-Qaida affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013, “before returning to Nigeria with terrorist expertise.”
It also noted that Shekau has publicly expressed solidarity with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and affiliates, including AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.