Under pressure from a growing social media campaign, the White House said Monday that it is providing 26 U.S. personnel to the Nigerian government to help find more than 200 girls kidnapped four weeks ago by an Islamic terrorist group.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration has assembled a team of 17 Defense Department employees, five State Department officials and four FBI officials to aid in the search for the girls, who were taken last month. Many of the personnel were already in Nigeria, he said.
“President Obama has directed his team to do everything it can to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to find and free these girls,” Mr. Carney said. “I can report to you that our interdisciplinary team … is up and running now at our embassy in Nigeria, helping to support the Nigerian government by providing military and law enforcement assistance as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.”
The leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, was seen Monday in a video announcing that the girls, mostly Christians, had converted to Islam. He offered to release the schoolgirls in exchange for Boko Haram members imprisoned by the Nigerian government.
“Praise be to Allah, the lord of the world,” the girls chant in the video. They are wearing black and gray hijabs and reciting the Koran in Arabic as they make the Muslim declaration of faith. Many of the girls — who range in age from 15 to 18 — are barefoot. Some appear fearful and others desolate. One of them says they have not been harmed, the BBC reported.
Three of the girls speak in the video. Two say they were Christian and have converted to Islam, and the other says she is Muslim.
A burgeoning social media campaign with the rallying cry “#BringBackOurGirls” has been gaining momentum for weeks, calling on Western countries to intervene.
Among the celebrities who have joined the campaign are Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys and Angelina Jolie.
First lady Michelle Obama recorded a Mother’s Day message calling for the girls’ return and has posed for a photo with a sign stating #BringBackOurGirls.
Some conservatives have criticized the administration for responding to “hashtag activism” that is unlikely to produce results. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter posted a photo of herself on Twitter holding a sign that stated “#BringBackOurCountry.”
Columnist George Will said the campaign “makes people feel good about themselves” but won’t have any effect on the “real world.”
“Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Uh-oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behavior’?” Mr. Will said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s an exercise in self-esteem.”
But some Republicans also are involved in the campaign. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, highlighted the House’s observance last week of a moment of silence for the kidnapping victims and said the House would consider five bipartisan bills in the coming days to fight human trafficking.
As the social media campaign grew, the Obama administration was stymied for weeks because the Nigerian government refused offers of foreign help.
With the calls rising for an administration attuned to women’s issues to take action, the White House took the unusual step Saturday of having Mrs. Obama give the weekly presidential address, which was devoted to the kidnapping and broader issue of allowing girls worldwide to receive an education.
Asked why the White House chose Mrs. Obama to give the presentation, Mr. Carney said she and the president are “deeply concerned … about the fate of these girls.”
He also didn’t miss the opportunity to call attention to the administration’s support for women’s issues domestically and internationally.
“The opposition to allowing girls to get the education that they deserve is opposition to progress, opposition to economic empowerment, opposition to health and security for millions and millions and millions of people around the world,” Mr. Carney said. “And this is a profoundly important idea, and these girls are suffering specifically and individually, but they are also suffering on behalf of a broader proposition, which is that whether you’re a girl or a boy, you should have all the rights to education that can be attained in the country in which you live.”
Mr. Carney said the president and first lady “believe that we ought to be doing everything we can to assist the efforts of the Nigerian government to find and free these girls, and we are.”
He cautioned that the task is difficult because the search area in Nigeria is as large as all of New England.
Nigeria has deployed two army divisions to hunt for the girls, and several nations including the U.S., Britain, Israel and France have offered help or sent specialists.
The Nigerian government has been criticized for its response to the abductions, but President Goodluck Jonathan said Sunday that international military and intelligence assistance made him optimistic about finding the girls.
A Nigerian military source told Reuters on Monday in Maiduguri that two foreign counterterrorism units were on the ground.
Boko Haram has killed thousands since 2009 and destabilized parts of northeastern Nigeria, the country with Africa’s largest population and biggest economy.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.