Why No UAVs Over Nigeria?

CBS News is reporting that Boko Haram’s leader recently stated on video that he is willing to release over two hundred schoolgirls abducted by the terrorist organization almost a month ago, in exchange for the release of group members being held prisoner by the Nigerian government.

One would hope that these girls will be rescued without the release of any Boko Haram terrorists, or the acquiescence to any other demands the group’s leadership may issue. The American and Israeli experiences with releasing terrorist prisoners demonstrate that such gestures only embolden such organizations – and, in the case of the U.S. transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, enable outright recidivism by the same individuals we’ve turned over.

If Nigeria is serious about locating and rescuing these hostages, they should avail themselves of a highly effective American resource for such a purpose: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As the Washington Post reported last year, the United States has established several UAV bases across Africa, including in Nigeria’s northern neighbor, Niger:

Now, [drones] are becoming a fixture in Africa. The U.S. military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over East Africa from the island nation of the Seychelles.

The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in West Africa. Niger shares a long border with Mali, where an al-Qaeda affiliate and other Islamist groups have taken root. Niger also borders Libya and Nigeria, which are also struggling to contain armed extremist movements.

Of course, drones deployed over Nigeria would not have to be armed – they could simply be mobilized for intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance purposes in order to provide the necessary support to rescue personnel on the ground.

The Department of Defense is rightfully expressing some frustration over having its UAVs grounded in this instance, as reported by NBC News:

Though U.S. officials have offered to do everything possible to aid in the search for more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls, the Nigerian government has yet to accept drone flights over its restive northeast corner, U.S. officials say.

The reason why the Nigerian government has not requested the remotely piloted U.S. surveillance drones is not clear.

Frustration over the inaction was evident at a Pentagon briefing Friday.

“There are no active discussions” with the Nigerian government about the use of “unmanned aerial surveillance,” or drones, said Rear Adm. John Kirby.

In fact, Kirby said, the relatively small “coordination team” of U.S. military, law enforcement FBI and intelligence officials is the only offer of assistance that the Nigerian government has accepted. Kirby declined to say what else may have been offered and rejected by the Nigerians, saying only, “We urge them (Nigerians) to use all resources at their disposal.”

If the alternative to using American UAVs is negotiating the release of Boko Haram prisoners, Nigeria should brace itself for more terrorist abductions down the road – and so should we.

About Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner is the Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy, where he manages the Center's educational efforts and interactions with the federal government. His articles have appeared in The American Spectator, The Washington Times, Townhall, The Washington Examiner, and inFocus Quarterly. He holds a law degree from Georgetown University, and received his bachelor's degree in political science, with highest distinction, from the University of Michigan.