Requiem for a Rescue

Boko Haram, a militant insurgent and insurrectionist group in Nigeria, has once again gained the international spotlight with the group’s recent abduction of 276 school girls from the small village of Chibok in Borno state on April 14th and 15th. On December 4, 2013, Foreign Intrigue Senior Analyst and writer Eric Jones outlined the historical roots, ideology, motivations, and anti-government activity of Boko Haram in his article The Nigerian Taliban: Boko Haram.

The frustration and anger of the families of the missing girls, reflected and broadcast in numerous reports throughout the recovery effort, has led to questions about the effectiveness of government planning and the capacity of the Nigerian security forces (to include the military) to conduct a successful rescue operation.

In Nigeria’s Inescapable Burden, an opinion piece he contributed to US News and World Report on May 16th, Brian Michael Jenkins identifies what he asserts are the two main issues constraining rescue planners:

1. Hostage rescue is difficult.

2. Maintaining a large number of hostages presents Boko Haram with a set of challenges that is likely to facilitate, eventually, their release.

The first point is certainly true, but modern militaries around the world have units that train extensively to conduct such operations. As an excuse for not attempting such an operation, it’s not terribly valid.

The second point, the difficulty in maintaining control over the hostages, alludes to the desperation of world leaders. This is reflective of the dearth of understanding many Western policy makers, scholars, and strategists have of Africa as a whole. Jenkins himself admits this point, asking:

“Where are they being held? Are they still together in a single group or dispersed into smaller groups? Have some already been “sold” and are now captives of individual buyers? How are they being guarded? Could Boko Haram’s leader be persuaded to return them unharmed in return for something that Nigeria realistically could offer?”

While it remains possible that Boko Haram might release these girls for Jenkin’s reasons, it’s also possible that they may simply kill them all and walk away, or make good on their threat to sell them, or break them into smaller groups and keep them themselves. We’re not sure; we don’t really know enough about Boko Haram and it’s support networks to be certain. All we know – and Boko Haram knows – is that we don’t know, and that we cannot find them. Operating in open secrecy for so long, what incentive does Boko Haram have to release these girls at all?

Africa has often been referred to, disparagingly, as the “Dark Continent.”This term is especially fitting today, in a completely different manner: Our knowledge of what occurs deep within many of its nations is simply not there, and it has become a hub for dark networks – particularly those that deal in illicit financing.

For both of these things, we have no one to blame but ourselves. While we claim a foreign policy of engagement, we have done our level best to ignore much of Africa. There are regional experts, to be sure, but they are few, especially those outside of academia. I’m reminded of the scene in “Charlie Wilson’s War” in which Congressman Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) asks Central Intelligence Agency Case Officer Gust Avratkotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who exactly was tasked to work on the nascent Soviet war in Afghanistan: “Me and three other guys.”

Until Western policy makers and scholars permanently rid themselves of their inborn bias about Africa and its history and the perspective and understanding of those same Westerners adjusts to the modern realities of the continent’s role in the international system, we should not expect any real successes – diplomatic, economic, or other – in the region. Rather, we should expect more of the same. Given Africa’s ever-growing role in money laundering and illicit financing, it’s only a matter of time before groups like Boko Haram expand their terror operations beyond the African continent.

One thing is certain: it’s shameful to pin the hopes of finding these girls on their captor’s inability to continue to hold them.


John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. His current areas of study and work include criminal street gangs, social network analysis, and asymmetric threat mitigation.


(Photo courtesy of United States Department of State)