Tuesday, April 16, 2024

CIA officer reveals how she leveraged NGOs for U.S. covert operations in Nigeria under Buhari

Molly Chambers said she was sent to Maiduguri to track down late Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau during multinational efforts to rescue the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok.

• February 19, 2024
Molly Chambers and CIA
Molly Chambers and CIA

A case officer with the United States Central Intelligence Agency has narrated how she played a key role in setting up an outfit that was used as a cover for clandestine counter-insurgency measures against the dreaded Boko Haram sect. 

Molly Chambers, a California native who was among the new generation of women who joined the CIA after September 11, 2001, said she was sent to Maiduguri around 2017 to track down late Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau when multinational efforts intensified towards rescuing the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in 2014, according to a new book by journalist and author Liza Mundy. 

Molly Chambers
Molly Chambers[credit : Molly Chambers]

In “The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA,” Ms Chambers, now retired and running a private intelligence consultancy, narrated how, shortly after Boko Haram rebranded as Islamic State in West Africa, she settled down in Maiduguri without knowing anyone in the area and only with about $100,000 handed to her by the agency. 

Boko Haram’s affiliation with ISIS around late 2016 made it “a legitimate target for counterterrorism mission,” the book, released in October 2023, said, adding that Ms Chambers’ team was “in a godforsaken section of north Nigeria; there was a single CIA case officer in the region, but he needed a team, and that’s where Molly came in.” 

“Molly was sent to a very poor region near Lake Chad, where residents subsisted on farming and fishing. Climate change was affecting fishing; the lake was shrinking, and jobs were scarce, idle fifteen-year-olds an easy mark for recruitment into Boko Haram,” the book said.

Consequently, Ms Chambers “developed a cover as an outfit that was mapping the area to sell to NGOs.” 

“Her job was to set up a safe house, which meant finding a compound and outfitting it to make it habitable. The case officer did a one-day turnover, gave her hundreds of a hundred thousand dollars and said call me if you need me. 

“She found a compound with a main house and a guest house, signed the lease, and squared it away. There was no electricity, no running water, no computer system, no secure comms. Molly got one support officer, a woman, who helped set things up. 

“She bought a generator and arranged for fuel deliveries. She made the house habitable. She bought a car and tinted the windows herself, smoothing the tinting plastic with a Starbucks gift card,” the book said.

After settling down, the CIA agent found someone close to Boko Haram and extracted information relating to the possible whereabouts of Mr Shekau, who by then was among the most sought terrorists in the world. 

Following Boko Haram’s emergence in mid-2009 and the killing of its founder Mohammed Yusuf a few weeks later, Mr Shekau rose to prominence as the sect’s new leader and was responsible for coordinating its most infamous attacks, including the abduction of about 276 schoolgirls in Chibok. The sect also claimed responsibility for bombing the United Nations office in Nigeria, as well as several churches and malls in and around the capital Abuja.

 Mohammed Yusuf

Mohammed Yusuf[credit : The voice of Nigeria]

“She penetrated Boko Haram from there. She cultivated an asset who told her about Abubakar Shekau’s location. They then used the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to locate a mosque Shekau was believed to be hiding. He was also said to be using different courier persons to deliver messages,” the book said, based on Ms Chambers’s account.

Ms Chambers said she later worked with the French and British intelligence towards rescuing the abducted girls, many of whom were returned in batches, although some were never recovered 

Understanding the peril of her assignment, Ms Chambers said she knew “nobody would be coming to help her” and, consequently, kept a Glock 19 with thirty rounds of ammunition. “Twenty-nine for the enemy and one for her,” the book said. 

It was not immediately clear how much the Nigerian government under Muhammadu Buhari knew about Ms Chambers’ operation in Nigeria. A spokesman for the former president did not return a request seeking comments. 

President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

But the government had previously lamented the growing influence of groups using the cloak of non-governmental and charitable organisations from different parts of the world to operate in Nigeria’s north-east with impunity. In 2020, Buhari administration officials expressed outrage after reports circulated that former President Donald Trump authorised a successful rescue of an abducted American priest on Nigerian soil without carrying his Nigerian counterpart along. 

Violent attacks linked to Boko Haram have subsided considerably since Mr Shekau was believed killed around May 2021. The Nigerian military also announced the death of another leader of the group Abu Musab al-Barnawi a few months later in October 2021.

In over two years preceding Mr Shekau’s rumoured death, his group had already appeared to have lost its ability to carry out large-scale attacks on Nigerian civilians and security forces, which the government saw as a crucial relief after the bloodshed that gripped the country from 2009 to 2019.

The book said Ms Chambers was enlisted into the CIA while she was attending the University of California, Davis, and was among women in the U.S. intelligence community who described themselves as “lady case officers.”

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