Pressure was growing on Monday night for Western military drones to be used in the hunt for more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria, as the terrorist thought to be holding them threatened to “marry off” girls aged as young as nine.
Experts said that unmanned spy planes of the kind used in Afghanistan could be deployed along with satellite-operated cameras to search the vast areas of desert and woodland where the girls are thought to be hidden.
Over the weekend, the Nigerian military massed for a search operation in the Sambisa Forest region, although on Sunday, President Goodluck Jonathan said the government still did not know where the girls were. According to Nigerian police, about 223 girls are still missing after being abducted from their boarding school in the remote northern Nigerian town of Chibok on April 14.
The urgency of the situation was underlined yesterday when Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group believed to have abducted the girls, released a video in which its leader gloatingly threatened to sell them as “slaves”.
“I abducted your girls,” said Abubakar Shekau, who appeared dressed in combat fatigues and standing in front of an armoured personnel carrier. Six masked gunmen flanked him. “I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine.”
Shekau described the abduction as part of Boko Haram’s war against Western-style secular education in Nigeria, which has seen the group attack dozens of schools in the predominantly Muslim north. “I said Western education should end,” he added. “Girls, you should go and get married.”
The release of the tape comes as a major security operation gets under way in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, ahead of a World Economic Forum conference that starts on Wednesday. Last week, a car bomb attack blamed on Boko Haram killed 19 people in the city.
With the plight of the missing schoolgirls now likely to play high on the agenda of the conference, Mr Jonathan said over the weekend that he had reached out to the US, Britain, France and China for help on security issues.
While he did not specify what help he had sought, it is thought he may have discussed whether satellite or drone technology could be used in the hunt for the girls. Britain has said it is happy to provide “practical assistance” if necessary.
One satellite technology expert, who asked not to be named, outlined to The Telegraph yesterday how such technology might be of use.
“Both the Americans and and the French have satellite systems that could be used to provide photography, although it would be something of a needle in a haystack job,” he said.
“The other option is using unmanned aerial vehicles, which can circle areas repeatedly and build up patterns of activity. They might spot, for example, that a particular farmhouse has suddenly got lots of vehicles that weren’t there before–or that those same vehicles have moved elsewhere.”
Drone photography would also be able to tell whether the vehicles were mounted with machine guns–a common tactic of Boko Haram mobile convoys. Drones can also operate from a height of 25,000 feet or more, making them hard for the militants to spot.
American and French commanders currently operate drones out of a newly-established base at an airfield in neighbouring Niger, which France has been using in its fight against al-Qaeda militants in Mali.
The expert said the main issue would be availability. “If they were going to be of use, they would probably make them available quite quickly, but it’s a question of whether they have the assets free,” he said.
The Nigerian government has been accused of failing to respond quickly enough to the crisis. Last night, the leader of a protest march for the missing schoolgirls accused Mr Jonathan’s wife of ordering her arrest. Saratu Angus Ndirpaya, who was held by state security police in Abuja, said that Patience Jonathan had accused her and a colleague of trying to use the crisis to discredit her husband’s government.
International attention on the plight of the missing girls was initially slow but has grown in recent days, in part because of a social media campaign – #bringbackourgirls.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, promised on Saturday that Washington would do “everything possible” to help Nigeria deal with Boko Haram militants and bring the children home.