The United States will conduct surveillance and intelligence operations against Boko Haram inside Nigeria, sources familiar with the plan told AFP Friday, a significant escalation of Washington’s role in combatting the Islamist group.
The operations will be carried out as part of the recently announced deployment of up to 300 US military personnel to neighboring Cameroon, officials said.
“This is going to be part of our Boko Haram efforts that will be operating throughout the region,” one of the sources said on condition of anonymity.
It will not include boots on the ground or offensive combat, but will see US military operations against Boko Haram in Nigeria for the first time.
“It’s surveillance and intelligence gathering, not anything offensive,” said the same source.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced 90 US personnel had already been sent to Cameroon and may eventually number up to 300.
The White House has been at pains to stress that personnel would not take part in combat operations and would be armed only for self-defense.
Nigeria greeted that announcement as a “welcome development.”
President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May vowing to end the violence that has killed scores and spooked much-needed international investors.
But US efforts to give him military assistance have been hampered by concerns about human rights abuses carried out by the country’s military.
And until now Washington has largely shied away from engaging its vast military assets to combat Boko Haram, with policymakers wary of fueling militant recruitment or fusing the group’s ties with Middle Eastern Islamists.
The group’s leaders have allied themselves with the Islamic State group, but experts doubt the scale and scope of collaboration.
However, there are growing fears that a once regional Muslim anti-colonial movement is now metastasizing into a regional jihadist threat.
The US moves come as Boko Haram steadily expands operations beyond its traditional base in northern Nigeria, conducting attacks in Cameroon and Chad that have killed dozens.
An uptick in violence is expected in the coming weeks with the end of the rainy season and amid growing resistance to a nascent multi-national joint task force bringing together countries in the region to fight Boko Haram.