The Obama administration deepened the U.S. military’s involvement in the battle to contain the terrorist group Boko Haram Wednesday, announcing the deployment of 80 American troops to help in the search for more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the shadowy Nigeria-based Islamist group last month.
The White House offered few specifics of the deployment, saying in a letter to Congress only that the “U.S. Armed Forces personnel” are being deployed to neighboring Chad, where they will support American surveillance drone operations that began over nearby northern Nigeria last week as part of the effort to locate the missing girls.
It was not immediately clear whether the announcement will satisfy Republican critics in Congress, who have called on the White House to ramp up U.S. military and intelligence assistance to Nigeria to help the central African nation find the missing girls — and contain the regional threat posed by Boko Haram.
“We can’t sit on the sidelines,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, told Obama administration officials who appeared before the committee on Wednesday morning, shortly before the new mission was announced.
“I have been in Nigeria many times. It’s a struggle for the Nigerian military to cope with this threat,” Mr. Royce said. “U.S. involvement is critical.”
Nigeria’s population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and violence between the two communities has a long history. While the past decade saw Christian extremists cause violence in southern Nigeria, Boko Haram, an anti-Western Islamist group based in the predominantly Muslim north, has killed thousands of Nigerians in recent years.
While U.S. officials now link the group to al Qaeda in Africa, Boko Haram has long been a subject of heated debate among foreign policy and intelligence analysts in Washington. Initially, Obama administration officials argued that the group posed little threat to the United States and was focused primarily on local issues and targets in Nigeria.
While some experts argue that may still be the case, the shadowy group garnered global attention in 2011 when it claimed responsibility for an al Qaeda-style suicide car bombing that killed 21 people at a U.N. building in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. The Guardian newspaper reported in 2012 that documents detailing contacts with Boko Haram were found in the files of Osama bin Laden’s home during the U.S. raid that killed the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan in May 2011.
Many Republicans say the White House moved too slowly after the Abuja bombing to publicly characterize Boko Haram as a serious terrorist threat. The State Department officially designated the group as foreign terrorist organization in November 2013.
While Boko Haram’s clashes with the Nigerian government have drawn little attention outside Nigeria, the group drew worldwide attention last month by kidnapping 276 girls from a school in the northern Nigerian village of Chibok.
Recent weeks saw U.S., Israeli and British authorities respond by sending teams of counterterrorism and intelligence experts into Nigeria to assist the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in attempting to locate the girls.
Following their abduction, Boko Haram circulated videos threatening to sell the girls into slavery unless the Jonathan government agrees to release detained Boko Haram members. Media reports, meanwhile, suggest the group’s operatives may be hiding the girls in a vast and densely-forested area of northeastern Nigeria, near the border with Chad.
On Capitol Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory told Wednesday’s hearing that “Boko Haram uses the lightly controlled borders between Nigeria and its neighbors for cross-border operations.”
Mrs. Dory said the Pentagon and State Department are working on a “proposal to enhance border security along Nigeria’s common borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon in support of a regional response to counter the threat posed by Boko Haram.”
Mr. Obama announced the deployment of troops in a letter Wednesday to the Senate and to House Speaker John Boehner.