How a Hashtag Went Viral—and Incited a Military Intervention

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“I kidnapped your women,” stated Boko Haram’s chief Abubakar Shekau, grinning in fight fatigues, his chin raised triumphantly. Standing in a forest clearing, flanked by six masked gunmen, Africa’s most wished man had lastly captured the world’s consideration, and he was elated. The lens zoomed in to point out his rifle swinging in entrance of his bulletproof vest as he chopped his arms within the air. “I’ll promote them available in the market, by Allah! I’ll marry off a girl on the age of twelve. I’ll marry off a woman on the age of 9.”

This was petrol for a Twitter hearth. The story now had a ticking clock and a transparent villain. Inside minutes, screenshots and article previews bearing Shekau’s menacing grin have been flying throughout Twitter and it was trending, sparking new convulsions of shock and hundreds of thousands extra endorsements for #BringBackOurGirls. Footage of the warlord performed on loop on cable information, a pantomime TV villain that helped spotlight a six-year-old insurgency as a contest of fine versus virtually unfathomable evil. Anchors choked up as they introduced packages on the madman who had taken our women.

In London, tons of of demonstrators thronged the Nigerian embassy, holding matching “NO CHILD BORN TO BE TAKEN” placards. One other crowd swarmed the United Nations in Manhattan. British parliamentarians wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron to ask what motion the UK would absorb its former colony. In a letter to the White Home, 20 girls within the Senate wrote, “The ladies have been focused by Boko Haram just because they wished to go to highschool and pursue data. The USA should reply.” None of them appeared conscious that the insurgency had been attempting to steal a brickmaker.

Condemnations of Boko Haram have been morphing into the language of a navy intervention. Conservative speak radio host Rush Limbaugh was lambasting the White Home for being mushy on terrorism, asking, “Is america actually this powerless? After which in case you reply sure, we’re actually this powerless, then isn’t Obama guilty?” Senator Dianne Feinstein was demanding that US particular forces stage a rescue mission, and if the Nigerian authorities didn’t approve one, then peculiar Nigerians ought to raise their voices and demand that their leaders open their soil as much as American troops. No matter it took, she stated, to find, seize, and kill the lads who’d achieved this.

In a gathering within the White Home’s John F. Kennedy Scenario Room, deputy nationwide safety adviser Ben Rhodes had been watching the hashtag’s metrics and asking what exactly the endgame was. “Even when it hits a billion tweets, do we expect Boko Haram goes to throw up their arms and say, ‘OK, we let the women go’?” Inside days of touchdown in America, #BringBackOurGirls had vaulted onto the screens of among the Obama administration’s most senior figures.

Rhodes and different officers for international coverage, intelligence, and protection held hourlong Chibok periods within the underground complicated the place the president had as soon as live-monitored the killing of Osama bin Laden. Different conferences passed off within the close by gray-paneled Eisenhower Govt Workplace Constructing. Diplomats in West Africa tuned in on a video convention line, juggling the time distinction.

The query was how the world’s strongest authorities deliberate to assist discover and free the schoolgirls. With the hashtag migrating from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, it was inevitable that the kidnapping would seem on the president’s morning intelligence abstract, compiled on the CIA’s Virginia headquarters. The president would need to know what coverage choices have been obtainable.

Formulating a solution fell to the Nationwide Safety Council, the teachers and intelligence officers who sketch out technique for the White Home. Al Qaeda allies in Africa had turn out to be a rising concern for the NSC, simply as Twitter had additionally begun to form its preoccupations. Two of its employees had just lately been appointed the NSC’s inaugural Twitter screens, tasked with pasting 5 or 6 attention-grabbing or fashionable tweets into every day emails to related officers. As these screens watched the analytics on #BringBackOurGirls soar, the NSC employees started summoning prime officers at protection, state, and different departments, to debate the kidnapping. What might America do? Every division wanted to succeed in into its capabilities and current belongings it might provide.

The Justice Division might ship FBI brokers with expertise defusing hostage crises. The State Division had medics and psychologists it might fly in from neighboring embassies to deal with the women upon their launch. However no one across the desk had something approaching the assets of the Division of Protection, whose $614 billion discretionary finances for the previous yr was considerably bigger than your entire Nigerian economic system. Their reply to the issue was drones. The US had satellites and propeller planes that would scan the Sambisa space. However for daylong flights of steady intelligence gathering, they might use the “workhorse,” an RQ-4 International Hawk drone, gunmetal grey with a bulbous head like a dolphin, which might surveil a South Korea–dimension acreage every day. A number of weeks later, the US would possibly have the ability to rotate in one other drone, named the Predator.

Maintaining these machines within the air for prolonged missions would require deploying troops within the area. All informed, the room was debating the deployment of greater than 1 / 4 of a billion {dollars} of refined matériel over among the world’s poorest farmland, searching for youngsters held by a bunch that had by no means attacked america, on a mission ordered up by Twitter. “Why are we searching for some schoolgirls versus searching for al Qaeda?” a Protection Division official protested in a single assembly. One other requested if the US was going to do that each time a bunch of ladies was kidnapped, and in that case, “What’s your threshold? … Is it 5? Is it 50?”

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