(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. is discussing with Nigeria ways to support its efforts to find more than 200 schoolgirls, many of them Christians, abducted by Boko Haram 18 days ago. The terrorist group’s leader in video in March made reference to the seizing of “infidel women” to serve as “slaves.”
Seized during a raid on a secondary school in the country’s far north-eastern Borno state on April 14, the girls whereabouts remain a mystery, although there have been some reports locally that they may have been taken across the nearby border into neighboring Cameroon or Chad.
With a social media campaign going viral (Twitter and Instagram hashtag #BringBackOurGirls; a change.org petition attracting 105,000 signatures and counting), State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Thursday described their ordeal as “horrific” and “abhorrent.”
“I don’t know if there are enough words that I could come up with to say how terrible the situation is,” she told a press briefing.
“We know Boko Haram is active in the area. We’ve worked very closely with the Nigerian government to build their capacity to fight this threat,” Harf said.
“We have been engaged with the Nigerian government in discussions on what we might do to help support their efforts to find and free these young women. We’ll continue to have those conversations and help in any way we can.”
Harf was unable to give details about the nature of potential U.S. assistance, and could not say whether the U.S. has already provided any help or assets in a bid to ascertain the girls’ whereabouts, but said she would seek to obtain more details.
“We’ve said we’re happy to help and assist. We obviously work very closely with them on counterterrorism writ large, particularly in terms of building their own capacity to fight this threat, and we will continue to do so.”
It is still not clear how many schoolgirls were seized in the abduction, but officials in Borno state believe as many as 230 are missing.
A senior community leader in the predominantly Christian town where the targeted school is located, Pogu Bitrus, told Britain’s Channel 4 News that he learned that many of the abducted girls had been forcibly converted to Islam and some were then married off in Cameroon – with as little as 2,000 naira ($12.50) – cited as the going “bride price.”
In March, Boko Haram released a video claiming responsibility of a brazen raid on an army barracks in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, during which reference was made to plans to abduct women.
“Western education is totally forbidden,” the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in the local Hausa language. “Girls, you should return to your homes. In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and in due course we will start taking women away and sell them in the market.”
Shekau in the video also expressed anger towards civilian youth vigilante groups which have been formed in the north to fight against the terrorists.
“May Allah curse you!” he said in comments apparently directed at Muslims among the vigilantes. “Oh Allah, they are your servants but are they assisting [Nigerian President Goodluck] Jonathan. They are your servants who pray but are jesting with the Qur’an. They are your servants but they are assisting Clinton and Obama.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and largest economy.
Boko Haram, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization whose name translates “Western education is prohibited,” has been waging a jihad against Christians and the government for more than five years, but this year already has marked the deadliest period yet in its campaign.
A fresh Boko Haram car bombing Thursday in the capital, Abuja, cost at least 12 lives, less than half a mile away from the location of a blast on April 14 in which 75 people were killed.
Jonathan one year ago declared a state of emergency in Borno and two other northern states, pledging to “win this war against terror.”
State Department spokeswoman Harf said Thursday that in fiscal year 2012 the U.S. provided more than $20 million in security assistance to Nigeria , in part to “help professionalize their military, investigate terrorist attacks, and enhance their forensics capabilities.”
“And we’ve worked with law enforcement there as well to help build their capacity as well,” she said.
Western security officials suspect Boko Haram has links to al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and to Somalia’s al-Shabaab.