Conflict & Justice

In negotiating the return of Nigeria's missing girls, officials first have to find someone to negotiate with

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Credit: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

People take part in a protest demanding the release of abducted school girls from the remote village of Chibok, Nigeria. The Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls .

It is not going to be easy.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

That's the way one expert in hostage and kidnapping negotiations describes the road ahead for agents working to secure the release of Nigerian teenage girls kidnapped late last month. US intelligence officials are assisting Nigeria's government with finding the more than 250 school girls abducted by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.  

The challenges are numerous, but one question has to come first: Who do you actually negotiate with?

That's according to Mark Lowe, editor of KR Magazine, an online magazine for professional negotiators in kidnapping cases.

"Boko Haram is ... a faceless creature." He says there are some known leaders, but there's no formal organizational structure that makes it easy to approach. 

There's more, of course, adds Lowe. This is not a criminal kidnapping. "This is an ideologist kidnapping (and) therefore [it's] very difficult to understand [the] mind set. You can try and think like them, act like them, but ultimately it's tremendously difficult." 

The situation will also be complicated because no one knows where these girls are. "They could be in northeast Nigeria. They could be in Cameroon. They could even be in Niger.  We're talking about an area with borders and frontiers that are impossible to monitor. You break up such a large group into small numbers and that makes it more difficult to identify where the hostages where they're being held," he says. 

The US government has dispatched a team of intelligence and security experts to help the Nigerian government with finding and negotiating the release of the teenagers, but no military forces are planned at the moment.

"[A] military solution is not ideal," Lowe says. "It's something you want to avoid for the simple reason that more often than not, the end result is not the desired result."

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