When four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in Niger earlier this month, many Americans, including some in Congress, were surprised that their troops were active in the little-known country. Now, nearly three weeks after the ambush in which they died, the main story line is about how long it took President Trump to reach out to their families, and what he said when he eventually did.
The United States has about 800 troops in Niger, a number which has been steadily increasing since they first deployed there in 2012. And while their operations take a back seat to those in Iraq and Syria — in size, strategic importance, and media attention — the U.S. military is eyeing a larger and more aggressive counterterrorism mission in this increasingly lawless region.
While analysts agree that the underpowered armies of Niger and neighboring countries need help in combating terrorist networks, some caution that heavy-handedness could trigger a spiral of violence similar to quagmires the U.S. military has helped to create in the Middle East.
“You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on Friday, after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed him and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on a possible expansion of the U.S. military's ability to use lethal force in Niger.
The part of Niger where U.S. troops were killed is already awash with deadly skirmishes. Islamist militants first took over areas in neighboring Mali, along its border with Niger, in 2012. While the militants were slowly beaten back by thousands of French troops working with the Malian and Nigerien armies, they still operate in hard-to-govern reaches of the Sahara Desert that covers the northern portions of both countries. From there, they've mounted countless attacks on military camps, kidnapped civilians and foreign contractors, and organized sophisticated attacks on hotels in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast.
The United Nations conservatively estimates that armed groups carried out at least 46 attacks in the region surrounding the village of Tongo Tongo, where the U.S. troops were killed, since early last year. Five Nigerien soldiers were also killed in that attack, and gunmen on motorcycles and pickup trucks killed 13 more on Saturday in nearby Ayorou. Hundreds of Nigerien and Malian soldiers have been killed since 2012.
The main role of U.S. forces, Mattis said earlier this week, is to provide refueling, intelligence and surveillance support for more than 4,000 French troops. France, which ruled both Niger and Mali as a colony until 1960, has a permanent air base in Niger's capital, Niamey. Washington also helps train Nigerien troops on the other side of the country, where they are fighting to eliminate Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamist armed group.
U.S. Air Force planes are based in the country for surveillance purposes, and U.S. Special Forces not only train troops, but often also "accompany and assist," according to AFRICOM, the U.S. military's Africa command center. Despite the level of American involvement, the National Security Council is yet to appoint a senior director for Africa, and the highest Africa position in the State Department is filled by a temporary appointee.
The loosening of restrictions on the U.S. military's ability to use lethal force in Niger could mirror similar decisions made in Syria, Yemen and Somalia. In those countries, the designation of certain regions as “areas of active hostilities” has paved the way for U.S. drone strikes and even on-the-ground raids. The United States suffered its first combat death in Somalia since 1993 in May.
Groups pledging allegiance to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State represent the France-led coalition's major adversaries in the region. The so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, is thought to have orchestrated the ambush that killed the U.S. Special Forces members, though they haven't claimed responsibility. Armed groups in Mali and Niger have regularly shifted allegiances as a way of attracting material support and appealing to local sensibilities.
“If U.S. troops in the area are allowed to go for more aggressive rules of engagement, then the question is who are they going to shoot at?” said Yvan Guichaoua, a professor at the University of Kent who specializes in political conflict in the Sahel, a region hugging the Sahara's southern fringes that includes Niger and Mali. “Answering 'the Islamic State' is not going to help. Jihadi militancy in the area has multiple forms.”
Since Libya, to the north, descended into civil war in 2011, both arms and militant ideologies have spilled over into Mali and Niger as never before. The main group operating in Mali and Niger now is not ISGS but a loose alliance of groups that gained prominence after 2011, known jointly as Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM.
ISGS, according to Guichaoua, has played on local grievances to recruit a following. Its base of support comes mostly from an ethnic group that has fought in the past with others over grazing land for cattle. Niger's government is too weak to adjudicate, and ISGS has helped the group “settle scores,” often bloodily. In Mali, armed Islamist militant groups have capitalized on ethnic tension, too — many in the country's mostly Arab and Tuareg north resent the Malian army, made up mostly of ethnic groups from the south, which has committed human rights violations in recent years.
“Targeting these groups is the best way to make their leaders heroes, foster unity in jihadi ranks, and inflame communal violence,” said Guichaoua. “All policymakers working in the area know well the highly inflammable nature of the situation.”
France, the United States, Niger, Mali, neighboring countries and all sorts of regional bodies are experimenting with the entire gamut of counterterrorism tactics, from dialogue led by local religious figures to the type of highly covert raids U.S. Special Forces are training regional armies to carry out. But both Guichaoua and Rida Lyammouri, an independent security consultant focusing on the Sahel, said understanding local political dynamics is key to driving support away from armed groups.
“The U.S. role should be designed in a way that local communities don't feel that they're being used,” said Lyammouri. “It is important that the Americans understand why these armed groups expanded over the past years despite the presence of international forces.”
Even so, at this point, the military option must remain on the table, he said. Eliminating militants' recruitment rationales can only go so far. The various militant groups have entrenched themselves and have proven capable of regular attacks on military outposts and civilian targets. The role of U.S. and French air power is crucial in the vast stretches of the desert, and neither Mali nor Niger has those capabilities.
Both Mali and Niger rank among the very poorest countries in the world. Niger, in particular, faces a plethora of problems. In the security vacuum created by armed groups in its northwestern and southeastern extremities, human trafficking routes have proliferated, and hundreds of thousands of Africans have traversed Niger on their way north to Europe.
The heavy-handedness that both Guichaoua and Lyammouri warned against is already apparent. Since the ambush in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, village leaders have been rounded up and arrested. Guichauoa said there are signs Nigerien and French troops are preparing for a mission to avenge the lives of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers. The population of an area near Tongo Tongo, about 3,000 people, has been ordered by the Nigerien military to evacuate. And Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are due back on Capitol Hill on Oct. 30 for a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about whether the administration believes a new authorization for use of military force is necessary.