Bring Back Our Girls? Boko Haram and the Forgotten Captives

Five months after the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the prospects for their safe return seem more remote than ever. Here's why. Continue reading →

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school. A few days after the April 14 abduction, 57 of the girls managed to escape.

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Since that time no more girls have escaped or been rescued, and hundreds remain in captivity. They remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown - or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast - including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use - and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blame Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

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Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren't forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and weeks turn to months, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence, from downed planes to Russia to other Muslim extremists in Iraq beheading Westerners.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram through intermediaries, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans - which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

ANALYSIS: Negotiating With Terrorists: What's the Big Deal?

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as "hostages" (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). As noted here at Discovery News, informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls' return:

Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including - and especially - an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Boko Haram Expands None of that happened, of course, and not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. In recent months Boko Haram operatives have targeted prominent political figures, including suicide bombings in Nigeria and the abduction of a vice prime minister's wife in neighboring Cameroon. As an NBC News story noted, "The leader of the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram has established the world's second Islamic ‘caliphate' this summer and is seeking to cement his bloody rule on a territory that is now roughly the size of West Virginia.... the forces of Boko Haram have been racking up victories in northern Nigeria and violently imposing an equally harsh version of Islamic law on approximately 3 million civilians - including beheadings, forced marriages and the forced induction of children into its military forces."

The Obama administration is understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation has created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don't care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned, and hopefully a solution - whether military or diplomatic - will come soon.

A protestor takes part in a demonstration against the kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria, at Trocadero Square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, May 13, 2014. The kidnappings drew international condemnation and fueled a viral internet campaign, but months later, the school girls are still missing.

After an initial blast, a second explosion appears in the background near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.