By Justin Sink - 05/06/14 08:31 PM EDT
The United States has sent a team of military and law enforcement personnel to Nigeria to assist in the search for nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by a radical Islamist group, President Obama said Tuesday.
“We’ve already sent in a team to Nigeria. They’ve accepted our help through a combination of military, law enforcement and other agencies who are going in, trying to identify where in fact these girls might be and provide them help,” Obama told ABC News.
“We’re going to do everything we can to assist them in recovering these young women,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry offered the “interdisciplinary team” Tuesday morning in a phone call with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.
The team will “provide expertise on intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiations [that] could help facilitate information sharing and provide victim assistance,” Carney said.
The White House said it had already been sharing intelligence with Nigeria about the kidnapped girls, but the deployment of the team represented an escalation of U.S. involvement.
The move came amid bipartisan calls for a more aggressive U.S. reaction to the abduction of hundreds of teenage girls by Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group that opposes providing Western education to women. The group has threatened to sell the children into slavery.
All 20 women in the Senate wrote Obama a letter on Tuesday condemning the kidnapping and encouraging “tough economic sanctions” against Boko Haram.
“We are outraged and horrified that these young women have been kidnapped, sold into slavery, had their education curtailed, and may even have been forced into marriages,” Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement. “Education is a basic right for boys and girls who deserve an equal opportunity to pursue their education without fear of violence or retribution — no matter where they live.”
Collins, in an interview with CNN, also called for the deployment of American special forces to rescue the girls.
Carney stressed that “at this point,” the White House was not considering “bringing essentially force to bear or troops to bear.”
“But there is a utility to having U.S. military personnel as well as experts on intelligence and investigations and hostage negotiations to assist and advise the Nigerian government as they deal with this challenge,” Carney said.
Separately, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called on the White House to work “with Congress to examine how we can address this growing threat to international peace, security and the protection of innocent lives.”
But Cantor said he was “heartened” that the White House had taken initial steps to address the situation, and he indicated that the focus “for now” should be on “finding and returning these girls to their homes.”
The Senate approved a resolution Tuesday condemning the kidnapping.
Boko Haram is active in Nigeria’s remote northeast region, where the country’s military has been unable to rescue the abducted girls. In a video taking responsibility for the kidnappings, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to attack more schools, according to reports.
The U.S. designated the group as a terrorist organization last year, after pressure from lawmakers, who cited Boko Haram’s attacks on Christians and oil workers in Nigeria.
Obama predicted the international outrage inspired by the kidnappings could mobilize the world against Boko Haram.
“You’ve got one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations in Boko Haram in Nigeria, they’ve been killing people ruthlessly for many years now, and we’ve already been seeking greater cooperation with the Nigerians — this may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime,” Obama told ABC.
Carney stressed that it remained “Nigeria’s responsibility to maintain the safety and security of its citizens,” and said time was “of the essence.”
“We are absolutely committed to helping Nigeria, but it is the Nigerian government’s responsibility, first and foremost, to maintain the safety and security of its citizens,” he said.
Obama and Kerry were expected to discuss developments in the search for the girls, who have been missing for more than three weeks, during a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon.
“We are going to do everything we can to be helpful,” Kerry said Tuesday. “I think you are going to see a very rapid response.”
The State Department said the exact makeup of the “coordination cell” was still being determined, and said the U.S. would also be providing victim assistance.
“The president has directed that we and the secretary and the State Department do everything we can to help the Nigerian government find and free these young women,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Erik Wasson contributed.
Uupdated at 8:31 p.m.