Recent U.S. surveillance flights over northeastern Nigeria showed what appeared to be large groups of girls held together in remote locations, raising hopes among domestic and foreign officials that they are among the group that Boko Haram abducted from a boarding school in April, U.S. and Nigerian officials said.
The surveillance suggests that at least some of the 219 schoolgirls still held captive haven’t been forced into marriage or sex slavery, as had been feared, but instead are being used as bargaining chips for the release of prisoners.
The U.S. aerial imagery matches what Nigerian officials say they hear from northern Nigerians who have interacted with the Islamist insurgency: that some of Boko Haram’s
'most famous' set of captives are getting special treatment, compared with the hundreds of other girls the group is suspected to have kidnapped.
Boko Haram appears to have seen the schoolgirls as of higher value, given the global attention paid to their plight, those officials said.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who faces re-election in February, is under political pressure to secure the girls’ release, with some people urging him to agree to a prisoner swap.
His government has ruled out a rescue operation, saying it is unwilling to risk the girls’ lives, or a prisoner swap.
“We don’t exchange innocent people for criminals. That is not in the cards,” said Mr. Jonathan’s spokesman, Reuben Abati, last week in an interview.
In early July, U.S. surveillance flights over northeastern Nigeria spotted a group of 60 to 70 girls held in an open field, said two U.S. defense officials.
Late last month, they spotted a set of roughly 40 girls in a different field.
When surveillance flights returned, both sets of girls had been moved. U.S. intelligence analysts say they don’t have enough information to confirm whether the two groups of girls they saw are the same, they said.
They also can’t say whether those groups included any of the schoolgirls the group has held since April. But U.S. and Nigerian officials said they believe they are indeed those schoolgirls.
“It’s unusual to find a large group of young women like that in an open space,” said one U.S. defense official. “We’re assuming they’re not a rock band of hippies out there camping.”
A wave of intermediaries acting on their own has tried to negotiate the girls’ release, Mr. Abati said, adding that the president has neither authorized nor discouraged those efforts.
Several of those intermediaries have said Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has ordered his fighters to treat the girls as valuable hostages—not sex slaves—one senior Nigerian security adviser said.
“He gave a directive that anybody found touching any of the girls should be killed immediately,” the adviser said. “If true, it is cheering.”
It would also show that Boko Haram is trying to follow an al Qaeda tactic: swapping hostages for money and political gain.
The group is accelerating its kidnapping of foreigners and politicians: Over the past two months, it has been blamed for abducting a German expatriate, 10 Chinese laborers in nearby Cameroon and the wife of Cameroon’s deputy prime minister.
Boko Haram has used hostages in the past to demand the exchange of its prisoners held in both Nigeria and Cameroon, which was one of the conditions for the release of a French family from captivity last year.
Now, the group appears to be testing the bargaining power of a group of girls who had been ordinary teenagers at a school—until their abduction on the night of April 14. That night, fighters with the Islamist insurgency—which is opposed to modern education—stormed a boarding school and drove 276 girls away hours before their final exams. Fifty-seven later escaped.
The captivity of the rest became a cause célèbre, prompting a Twitter campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, that was joined by notable figures including Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
It also spurred Boko Haram’s latest effort to get its captives released from Nigeria’s crowded prisons—a long-standing grievance. Three months after seizing the girls, Boko Haram’s leader, Mr. Shekau, appeared in a video demanding a prisoner exchange.
“You are saying bring back our girls,” thundered the bearded gunman, before firing his AK-47 into the air. “We are saying bring back our men!”
Dozens of demonstrators still gather in the capital each day to press for the girls’ freedom.