Washington last week sent a team of military advisers as part of an international effort to help Nigeria find the girls, who were abducted nearly a month ago by the extremist Islamic group.
The US defense chief was far from upbeat about chances of finding the girls.
“It will be very difficult. It’s a vast country. This is not going to be an easy task,” Hagel stated, in the interview recorded Saturday.
“We’re going to bring to bear every asset we can possibly use to help the Nigerian government,” he said.
Boko Haram kidnapped the girls from their dormitory on April 14, and has threatened to sell them.
The incident has drawn worldwide outrage.
Israel offered Nigeria help on Sunday in locating schoolgirls abducted last month by Islamist rebel group Boko Haram in an attack that has drawn global condemnation and prompted some Western powers to provide assistance.
“Israel expresses deep shock at the crime against the girls,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quoted him as telling Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan by phone, as quoted by Reuters. “We are ready to help in finding the girls and fighting the cruel terrorism inflicted on you.”
The statement did not elaborate on how Israel might enlist in the search, with which British and US experts are also helping. A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry said he knew of no cooperation efforts under way.
Israel has defense ties with Nigeria, and has provided it in the past with surveillance drones. Last September, Israel was among several countries that sent advisers to Kenya to assist in a stand-off with Islamist gunmen who attacked a mall in Nairobi.
The president of Nigeria for weeks refused international help to search for about 300 girls abducted from a school by the Islamist group Boko Haram, one in a series of missteps that have led to growing domestic and international outrage against the government. The United Kingdom first said it was ready to help in a news release the day after the mass abduction on April 15, and made a formal offer of assistance on April 18, according to the British Foreign Office.
The US has stated that the country’s embassy and staff agencies offered help and were in touch with Nigeria “from day one” of the crisis, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Yet it took Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan almost a month to accept help from the United States, Britain, France and China.
Reuben Abati, one of Jonathan’s presidential advisers, denied that Nigeria had turned down offers of help.
“That information cannot be correct,” he said. “What John Kerry said is that this is the first time Nigeria is seeking assistance on the issue of the abducted girls.”
US Senator Chris Coons said Friday that it took “far too long” for Jonathan to accept US offers of aid, and he is holding a hearing next week to examine what happened. A senior State Department official also said Friday that the US offered help “back in April, more or less right away.”
“We didn’t go public about it because the consensus was that doing so would make the Nigerians less likely to accept our help,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue concerns internal discussions between governments.
The delay underlines what has been a major problem in the attempt to find the girls: the fact that the government and the military don’t seem to feel the need to act urgently, for reasons that include a reluctance to bring in outsiders as well as possible infiltration by the extremists.
In a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama last week, Jonathan acknowledged that his government might be penetrated by insurgents from Boko Haram. Last year, he said he suspected Boko Haram terrorists might be in the executive, legislative and judiciary arms of government along with the police and armed forces.
The waiting has left parents in agony, especially since they fear some of their daughters have been forced into marriage with their abductors for a nominal bride price of $12. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau called the girls slaves in a video this week and vowed to sell them.
“For a good 11 days, our daughters were sitting in one place,” said Enoch Mark, the anguished father of two girls abducted from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School. “They camped them near Chibok, not more than 30 kilometers, and no help in hand. For a good 11 days.”
For two weeks, Jonathan did not discuss the abducted girls in public. In his Easter Day message, he said only that his thoughts were with the families of those killed by insurgents and the dozens wounded by the Abuja bombing.
Last week, angry Nigerian women, including at least two mothers of abducted girls, took to the streets in Abuja to protest the government’s failure to rescue the girls. Jonathan did not meet with them. Instead, he cancelled the weekly executive council meeting to offer condolences to his vice president, whose brother had died in a car crash.
His wife, Patience Jonathan, that night called a meeting to “investigate” what happened at Chibok, and said the kidnappings were engineered to hurt the name of her husband and his government. She accused the leader of the protests of being a Boko Haram member, detained her and released her after several hours.
Finally, at a Labor Day rally, Jonathan made a public pronouncement that “the cruel abduction of some innocent girls, our future mothers and leaders, in a very horrific and despicable situation in Borno state, is quite regrettable.” He pledged, “We must find our girls.”
On May 2, he set up a “largely fact-finding” committee to put together a strategy for rescuing the girls. Last Sunday, he raised eyebrows by saying on TV that he was “happy” the missing girls were “unharmed,” but then admitting that the government had no new information from the abductors.
Jonathan also hinted Sunday at why, apart from national pride, initial offers of help may have been ignored. Even before the kidnappings, he complained, he had asked Obama in two telephone calls for help with intelligence on the extremists but received questions about alleged military abuses. Jonathan said he responded that the US leader should “send someone to see what we are doing” on the ground, and “don’t just say there is some matter of alleged abuses.”
276 girls were abducted from a secondary school in Chibok in remote northeastern Nigeria on 14 April. On May 4, Boko Haram abducted at least 11 more girls, aged 12 to 15, from two villages in the northeast.