A high-ranking British official has revealed that Western intelligence agents were able to locate dozens of the nearly 300 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014 months after the abduction, but refused to act to save them, citing the danger of multiple deaths during a rescue attempt.
Former British high commissioner to Nigeria Andrew Pocock told The Sunday Times that it took mere months following the Boko Haram raid for British and American forces to locate the girls in the dense Sambisa Forest of northern Nigeria that Boko Haram used as an operating base.
A couple of months after the kidnapping, fly-bys and an American eye in the sky spotted a group of up to 80 girls in a particular spot in the Sambisa forest, around a very large tree, locally called the Tree of Life, along with evidence of vehicular movement and a large encampment.
At the time, the government of Nigeria had not officially requested international aid, limiting the action these groups could take.
More pivotal to the decision to do nothing to save the girls, Pocock argues, was the lack of a viable plan to rescue them without killing many, if not most, of the hostages:
“A land-based attack would have been seen coming miles away and the girls killed. … An air-based rescue, such as flying in helicopters or Hercules, would have required large numbers and meant a significant risk to the rescuers and even more so to the girls.”
“You were damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he lamented.
The Sunday Times also reported that they had independently been sent video evidence that the girls were alive, in the form of videos of the girls being raped repeatedly by Boko Haram jihadists.
While the Sambisa forest is a remote location, journalists have ventured into it in the past two years without protection from Boko Haram. Nigerian authorities have insisted in the past year that the forest remains the terrorist group’s final remaining stronghold.
The Chibok girls – known for the name of their village in northeastern Borno state – were kidnapped in April 2014, when a mob of Boko Haram terrorists descended upon the village and attacked its all-girls’ secondary school. The girls were in the middle of a physics final exam when they were carried away on trucks into the forests. The few who escaped did so by risking their lives and jumping off the moving trucks onto which they were forced. The abduction elevated Boko Haram to the status of international terror threat, more than a year before the group pledged allegiance to Islamic State “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The fate of the girls who did not escape remains a mystery. Early reports suggested they have been married off to jihadis after being raped repeatedly by their captors. Current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari confirmed this report. Many of those married off have been indoctrinated and turned into jihadis themselves. Boko Haram has become notorious for its dependence on female suicide bombers to conduct attacks, as they are deemed less suspicious and can hide explosives in their traditional Islamic garb. As the Nigerian military has expanded its efforts against the terrorist group, it has conducted a limited number of traditional raids on villages, instead sending young girls into Shiite mosques, Christian churches, and other such targets as suicide bombers.
Boko Haram conducted several more mass abductions in the years following the Chibok raid. Nigerian authorities have been more successful in liberating these hostages. In February, the Nigerian military announced that it had rescued 1,890 captives in Borno state, many of them pregnant women and young children.
In January, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that Boko Haram had been “defeated.” Boko Haram, with the aid of its affiliate, the Islamic State, has since conducted multiple suicide bombings, shaking the confidence of Nigerians in their military’s ability to shut down the group.