However, paucity of needed equipment like thermal imaging cameras hamper operations, he said.
He explained that it was from this intelligence that troops use the most basic of tracking skills to hunt for evidence of people passing through.
“Sometimes we see children’s footprints,” he said, according to an agency report.
Commenting on the intelligence capabilities in gathering data relevant to the search, Ragi said 30 ISR drone planes provide an “eye in the sky” that has helped the soldiers immeasurably, directing them to enclaves of Boko Haram captives. But not their target – the Chibok girls.
On his part, the theater commander of Lafiya Dole in the NorthEast, Major-General Leo Irabor, stressed the need for more international support to crush the insurgents.
In an interview with Nima Elbagir of CNN who went into the heart of Sambisa forest with the military, Irabor while commending his men’s achievement in pushing back Boko Haram said Nigeria’s close cooperation with the United States in running operations based off of air reconnaissance has led to clearing a significant portion along the east of the Sambisa forest and some promising wins.
“We do have pockets of the Boko Haram terrorists still left in some places but very largely we’ve decimated them,” he said.
There is a sense among the military that as Boko Haram has lost their territorial footprint, they are regrouping and using asymmetrical tactics, deploying waves of would be suicide bombers — some successful, some not — to inflict terror as opposed to the ground assaults they once unleashed. Irabor believes the militant group’s current capacity is “limited” and credits his force’s recent missions for the halt in attacks.
Just last month, the Nigerian Army captured Boko Haram’s camp in Alagarno forest, once considered the group’s “spiritual base” in the northeast.
Irabor also stated that intelligence surrounding the current location of the Chibok girls does, in fact, point to the Sambisa corridor, where his forces continue to advance deeper. But while proud of the accomplishments of his men, he says they need more international support.
“The question of the Chibok girls remains a sore point in our history. The biometrics – as it were – of the Chibok girls are not known to us. Those are the issues which I believe are among the challenges,” he said.
“We think, from the intelligence available to us, that the remaining areas that we are working to move into, that is where we are hoping to be able to rescue the Chibok girls,” he added.
Following a two-year-old trail while waging war against Boko Haram’s brutal insurgency has been trying but Irabor remained resolute. He believed the missing teens are now being moved in clusters so as not to attract unwanted attention and is leaving no stone unturned.
The commander explained that while his forces advance on the Sambisa Forest, they are also running down other leads on the whereabouts of the Chibok girls.
“It’s a belief,” he said. “But beyond that, we’re also getting some intelligence that they maybe somewhere on the Niger-Lake Chad border areas.”
Despite the obstacles his men face, Irabor is optimistic the Nigerian Army will ultimately be victorious in their mandate. The recent “proof of life” video obtained by CNN, has reinvigorated their resolve to bring back the girls.
“It gives us hope that what we have in mind – in terms of operations – that that is going to yield results,” he said.
There are few things worse than a child being ripped away from its mother. For two years, this has been the unimaginable reality for the parents of the missing Chibok girls. But the commander has a message for them: “Keep hope alive.”
“We are working assiduously so that all of them are rescued and brought back to live in their communities. I think that the light is beginning to shine and in a short while we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Irabor promised.
The Army has come under intense pressure in recent weeks to rescue the over 200 Chibok girls abducted two years ago.
The campaign to eradicate Boko Haram and recover the girls, code named “Lafiya Dole” — meaning “Peace by any means” in Hausa — is coordinated from Maiduguri. The Nigeria government has been condemned for its ineffective response to the mass kidnapping.
According to Elbagir, it was easy to criticize the government until one comes to the region that one can truly comprehends the mammoth task placed on the shoulders of the nation’s troops.
It has long been thought the Chibok girls were spirited away to the Sambisa Forest — a dry savannah of harsh terrain.
According to reports, the terrain in the northeast is unforgiving and troops face dehydration in the blistering heat while on patrol.
Originally marked as a game reserve by colonists, it was overrun by the Islamic insurgents several years ago. Covered in soft, light sand and brutal, dense bush, it is ideal for burying improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and shielding militants from prying eyes.
Since then, soldiers have intensified their efforts, infiltrating the Sambisa fortress, and in the process partially liberating the state from Boko Haram’s stranglehold. But the militants still hold territory right in the heart of the forest.
The region’s soft sand is ideal for hiding improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. This means the military must travel in heavily armored convoys with mine-proof trucks providing protection from the front.
Empty ammunition cases litter the ground, untouched since they flew from the machine guns used in a skirmish between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram fighters.
Boko Haram’s violent footprint is evident across the vast expanse of Nigeria’s northeast, where village after village has been left devastated by the group’s fighters.
According to reports what Boko Haram couldn’t loot, it burned to the ground. Reports say to this day, people remain afraid to return home.
Frequent attacks from Islamic insurgents have prompted residents to flee their villages and head to Maiduguri where it is, to an extent, safer.
Elbagir who joined the Nigerian Army as troops patrolled to the east and west of Maiduguri, close to the front line in the Sambisa Forest said the heat was relentless, dehydration an ever- present risk as they canvased a 120-kilometer wide search grid.
“We saw village after abandoned village as we journeyed across the country. Carcases of burnt out cars, pockmarked ground and crumbling structures dotted the landscape. What Boko Haram couldn’t loot, they burned. Entire towns razed.
“We traveled for hours in a heavily armored convoy — complete with mine-proof trucks carefully directing us from the front. Alongside soldiers, we saw them scouting the difficult terrain, walking long stretches through thick shrubs where camps could be hidden,” she said.