WASHINGTON — A15-year-old girl, the sole survivor of an attack on her family by Boko Haram, served as the emotional centerpiece of a House hearing on the terrorist group on Wednesday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee questioned State and Defense department officials about the administration’s response to recent attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria, including the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls.
U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee, said U.S. involvement in finding and rescuing the schoolgirls, who were abducted from a school in Chibok on April 14, is critical.
“We are faced with two challenges in northern Nigeria. In the near-term, seeing these schoolgirls rescued. And in the long term, rendering Boko Haram unable to threaten the region. This is a group that has killed more than 600 students and teachers and destroyed some 500 schools,” he said.
Royce said U.S. forces are well-positioned in the region and are well-trained to advise and assist Nigerian forces in the search for the girls.
He said that while the world is deliberating on what to do about the kidnapped girls, more girls are being taken, more attacks have occurred and more schools are being destroyed.
"Expanding their terror"
"The difficulty is that Boko Haram is in a process of expanding their terror, and the frequency of these attacks, the attacks on girls. That has been an evolution. I mean as they have intimidated and frightened the Nigerian military, they are now to the point where a lot of military units have run away," Royce said.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of Nigerians over the past five years.
Sarah Sewall, a senior official with the U.S. Department of State, said a U.S. team of military and civilian experts is working with Nigerian officials in Abuja. They are providing assistance in intelligence, military planning, hostage negotiations and communications.
“This effort is one that is extremely difficult and, as we know from our own experience, may take far longer than we would like,” Sewall said.
Similar to Royce, Sewall said the State Department is looking at Nigeria with both short- and long-term goals.
The immediate concern is finding and returning the schoolgirls abducted in Chibok last month, Sewall said.
Long-term efforts against Boko Haram
Long term, Sewall said the State Department is discussing with Nigerian officials concrete ideas on how to defeat Boko Haram, such as improving cooperation on border security, countering violent extremism, and redoubling efforts to promote economic growth and create jobs in the affected region.
“While the kidnapping in Chibok has cast a spotlight on Boko Haram, I want to emphasize that we have long been working to help the people of Nigeria and the Nigerian government address this terrorist threat,” she said in her opening remarks.
Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African Affairs, echoed Sewall.
“Our intent is to support Nigerian-led efforts to secure the girls and a greater importance to protect Nigerian civilians,” Dory said.
She said that military efforts alone can’t be used against Boko Haram. “Nigeria’s political leaders must play a role as well.”
Last week, Robert Jackson, a State Department specialist on Africa, told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that Nigeria objected to the U.S. formally listing Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 2012.
Jackson was speaking to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, responding to Republican criticism that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided against making that designation in 2012, which would have imposed certain sanctions.
At the time, several U.S. agencies, including intelligence services and the Justice Department, were pushing for the FTO designation, saying the group met the criteria and was becoming a growing threat, not only to Nigerians but to U.S. interests in West Africa, according to the AP.
After similar questions were raised in the House hearing Wednesday, Rep. Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was “absurd” to think that an earlier FTO designation would have prevented the kidnapping last month in Chibok.
But he said the U.S. must do more in the search for the girls.
“We believe very strongly that the United States in conjunction with other countries must do everything possible to free those girls. We have technology and other things available to us that other countries don't have that we believe should be utilized in a joint international effort to bring the girls home,'' he said.
Dory said, “It’s fair to say that we work closely with host nation governments” regarding FTO designation. “Regardless of the designation issue, Boko Haram had certainly been on the radar screen … since it emerged in Nigeria years ago.”
She added that some host countries may be reluctant to have groups be labeled FTOs because of the added attention they might receive.
Survivor tells her story
Before the hearing, legislators heard from Deborah Peter, a 15-year-old girl who survived an attack on her family in the same village from which the girls were abducted.
Peter told the story of how her father was targeted by Boko Haram because he was a Christian pastor in Chibok, VOA’s Cindy Saine reported Wednesday.
Peter said three men came to her home on Dec. 22, 2011, and asked her father to renounce his Christian faith. When he refused, they shot him in front of her and her 14-year-old brother. She was 12 at the time.
Afterward, they debated whether to kill her brother. She said Boko Haram members decided to kill him because they thought he might grow up to become a pastor, too.
Peter, now 15, came to the United States with the help of a Christian organization and is attends Mt. Mission School in Grundy, Va.