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Will Nigeria's Girls Ever Be Saved? What's Next in the Desperate Hunt

Some 276 Nigerian schoolgirls remain missing since April 14 after they were captured by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
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The initial reports were chilling: Armed men raided a northern Nigerian boarding school, piling more than 300 girls mostly ages 15 to 18 into pickup trucks, and stealing them to a secret location.

A sinister plot emerged that their captors, Boko Haram, “converted” their young hostages to Islam and wanted to sell them into slavery — unless the government accepts a deal to release imprisoned members in exchange for the girls.

“I think they will kill me,” she remembered in plotting her escape. “They were telling us, ‘We will kill you.’”

In the month since those April 15 kidnappings, the story has been called “heartbreaking” by President Barack Obama, raised the profile of the Islamist sect Boko Haram and spurred a social media movement.

And despite all of the attention, the “lost girls” are still gone.

How many girls remain missing?

The exact number has been murky since the incident at the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School. Conflicting reports from the government and military initially said 85 students were taken during the attack, while the number of freed was also much higher.

Police say the current number of missing girls is 276 after 53 of them managed to escape.

“Yes, yes, I ran into the bush,” escapee Joy Bishara, 18, told The New York Times this week.

“I think they will kill me,” she remembered in plotting her escape. “They were telling us, ‘We will kill you.’”

On Monday, Boko Haram released a video purportedly showing 100 of the girls gathered together, although it was unclear when it was taken.

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Why did Boko Haram take them?

Boko Haram roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” and it is the name that northern Nigerians have given to the rebels. They have killed an estimated 1,000 people this year alone in the West African nation, escalating violence from four years ago, when al Qaeda affiliates in Africa began training Boko Haram members.

Boko Haram has kidnapped other school children and women as bargaining chips with the government, but nothing on this latest scale. Other girls are refusing to go to school for fear that they could be next.

What’s being done to get the girls back?

The Nigerian government is conducting a search effort to find the girls, who are believed to be held in Boko Haram encampments and in separate groups. The U.S. has offered intelligence support, but there are no plans to put American boots on the ground, the White House said Wednesday.

Instead, both manned and unmanned U.S. military aircraft have been deployed to do surveillance missions over Nigeria. Other countries have also offered aircraft assistance.

Parents of the abducted girls said they told authorities where their children could be, but the response has so far been slow.

“In general, Nigeria has failed to mount an effective campaign against Boko Haram,” Alice Friend, the U.S. Department of Defense’s principal director for Africa, told a Senate committee on Thursday.

Image: Nigerian military search for Chibok girls
Nigerian Air Commander Remi Ekeh (l.), Air Commnder Emma Anebi (center) and Army Director of Defense Information Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade (r.) disembark an aircraft following flights around Yola, Chibok and Maiduguri in northern Nigeria on May 16, 2014.STR / EPA

How likely would it be for the girls to be rescued?

The Nigerian military is not well known for its rescue successes as much as a “heavy-handed response to threats,” said Carl LeVan, a professor and African security specialist at American University.

Given that assumption, some U.S. officials express doubt about how deft Nigeria can be in grabbing the girls.

“Those in the U.S. government are clearly concerned that if there is a rescue mission, very easily things could go awry,” said LeVan, author of the upcoming book, “Dictators, Democracy and African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria.”

“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters."

LeVan said that the longer the girls are held captive, the harder it will be for Boko Haram to keep them hidden without their location getting blown.

The government has said it is refusing to make the swap between the girls and jailed Boko Haram fighters. But without resorting to a violent clash with Boko Haram, members of the central government might grow desperate enough to negotiate with them, LeVan added.

What can Nigeria's president do to reassure his country that the military will succeed?

President Goodluck Jonathan canceled a planned visit Friday to the schoolgirls’ town citing safety concerns, a senior source told Reuters.

That won’t instill much confidence in Nigerians or show them that authorities can stand up to Boko Haram, said Shaul Gabbay, senior scholar at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

“What message does that send and what effect will that have on the continuation of this conflict?” Gabbay asked. “It’s another boost for Boko Haram, and a clear manifestation that the emperor [Jonathan] has no clothes.”

Complicating matters further is that Nigeria’s presidential election takes place next year, and Jonathan could decide to run again depending on how the situation evolves.

LeVan, who was working in Nigeria during the abductions, said Jonathan can be more forthcoming with information by holding daily press briefings and explaining how the government is working with international agencies.

Has the success of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls helped?

Gabbay called the issue a double-edged sword: On one hand, putting a spotlight on Boko Haram gives them the attention they crave, but it also allows the international community to rally together and condemn the ruthless rebel group.

“Boko Haram will want to lengthen this story for as long as possible,” Gabbay said. “They want the attention.”

And if they are perceived to be successful, it will only bolster their ranks, he added.

“Anyone that’s working to recruit at the local level is enjoying a back wind from all of this,” Gabbay said.

A number of celebrities and politicians have used #BringBackOurGirls to raise interest in the schoolgirls' plight.

In a rare move talking about foreign policy, first lady Michelle Obama used the president's weekly address on May 10 to appear solo and put the focus on Nigeria.

“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” Obama said in a video. “And we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”