The Mood In Abuja, Where Missing Schoolgirls Cast Long Shadow
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The president of Nigeria told a security conference in Paris this weekend that he is fighting out Al-Qaida in West Africa. Goodluck Jonathan was referring to Boko Haram, the group that abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria a bit over a month ago.
Joining us to talk about that is NPR's Gregory Warner who is in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Gregory, Al-Qaida in West Africa, is that a fair description of Boko Haram?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, the president of Nigeria clearly sees this as an opportunity, a political opportunity to align Nigeria with the West in the, you know, so-called war on terror. We saw the same thing in Kenya after the attack there on upscale mall in Nairobi, the same claim to a global terrorist movement. What we do know is that Boko Haram is sharing militants and technical know-how with terrorist networks around Africa, certainly and perhaps beyond.
And they've also attacked beyond Nigeria. Remember this is a group that began as a domestic insurgency. Now they've attacked a gas plant in Cameroon and other places in Cameroon. But at the same time, Al-Qaida itself has condemned Boko Haram for their practices, especially the schoolgirls and for killing Muslims. These are guys who will shoot up a mosque. So they are not friends with Al-Qaida but they certainly share techniques.
SIEGEL: Greg, has any progress at all been made in trying to bring back the schoolgirls?
WARNER: What the Nigerian military says is that they than 20,000 troops up to the north in the fight against Boko Haram. The best you can say about that is that they are making up for lost time, because Boko Haram has been creating violence for five years in the north. They've had at least seven schools, may be roughly in the past year. These are not even for schoolgirls that they've abducted. And there's been little or no army response in the past.
So the Nigerian plan now is to sweep upward, literally, through these dangerous northern regions, moving closer to and surrounding the Sambisa Forest which is this dense forest full of mountain caves about the size of West Virginia. It's hoped that the girls or most of the girls are still being held there.
SIEGEL: And what do we know about the American role in that pursuit of Boko Haram and the attempt to find the girls?
WARNER: Well, the Americans are providing surveillance. And the U.S. has sent in a highflying drone. It's called the Global Hawk. These have cameras that can take high-resolution pictures from as high as 60,000 feet; also sense body heat under tree cover; and listen to conversations from radio and cell phones.
What is new, what we know now today is that the Pentagon says that the U.S. is sharing all this information with Nigeria. Before this, the U.S. had a fusion cell, something called a fusion cell with the Brits and France working together. Nigeria was not getting kind of the full access. Now Nigeria is.
The concern though, and I didn't know that until I talked to parents or relatives of the girls today. But there is actually a deep concern about calling this a terrorist movement and the American role in fighting terrorism here. Because the Nigerian law says there is no negotiating with terrorists. And there's a consistent feeling about relatives of activists that there is no sole military solution to this; that you have to negotiate to get those girls back.
And, in fact, I was at a rally today; a protest of there in the rain, and they were shouting: Bring Back Our Girls and Alive. So that is deeply the concern of Nigerians that there's not this scorched-Earth campaign that results in the deaths of these young girls.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Gregory, thank you.
WARNER: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.