After four American soldiers and at least four of their Nigerien counterparts were killed in an ambush in Niger early this month, Sen. Lindsey Graham admitted that he hadn’t been aware that the United States had some 800 troops in the country. Even so, he asserted, “They were there to defend America. They were there to help allies. They were there to prevent another platform to attack America and our allies.”
This was, of course, the same justification Americans have heard for why U.S. troops are deployed to an increasingly long list of countries doing an increasingly long list of things. U.S. troops are indeed in Niger to help strengthen a U.S. military partner — something they have been doing across Africa since shortly after 9/11 and that they are set to do more of as the Defense Department shifts its counterterrorism focus to the continent. (In Niger we may soon see armed drones and increased direct military actions.) But it’s misleading to suggest, as Graham did, that we are fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
U.S. troops entered the region en masse in the early 2000s, when the United States began training and equipping militaries and helping build capacity in dozens of African countries that had never spawned a terrorist attack against the United States. The strategy was a preventative one, premised on the idea that weak and failing states could become havens for terrorists. And it is true that the Sahel, an arid region below the Sahara, saw a marked uptick in jihadi activity during this period. However, despite the very real threat to regional countries and international targets in North and West Africa, they posed at most a minimal threat to the continental United States.
Where these groups — like the jihadi group that would become al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007 — flourished, it was as much the result of how they exploited poor governance and communal tensions rather than their ideological appeal. In general, they had a mixture of local and regional agendas, combined with a transnational outlook that targeted Western interests in the region but rarely extended beyond Africa. Yet their presence and perceived threat to regional stability were used to justify an increasingly heavy U.S. military footprint in Africa — including in Niger, where American troops have been involved in training and equipping the country’s military since 2002. These operations expanded dramatically after 2011 and 2012, when the jihadi occupation of northern Mali gave new urgency to U.S. and European counterterrorism efforts.
Niger’s geographic position — it shares borders with Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria, among others — relatively capable military, and willingness to work with Western nations have helped turn it into a key U.S. counterterrorism partner. Since at least 2013, American forces have conducted training in Ouallam, a Nigerien town in the same region where the Oct. 4 ambush took place, and the United States may spend up to $100 million expanding and renovating its air base in Agadez, which will host the drone overflight and other operations currently taking place out of the capital, Niamey. The U.S. military also has access to other forward operating sites in the country, part of a burgeoning foreign military presence that has sparked protests from civil society organizations and the public.
This military presence has expanded at the same time as the security situation has deteriorated along Niger’s border with Mali, making it likely that a tragedy like the one on Oct. 4 would have happened sooner or later. Since February 2016, the U.N. has counted at least 46 attacks by armed groups in two border regions near where the attack took place, and there have been numerous attacks, assassinations, and other incidents across the Malian border during the same time period. Niger placed these regions under a state of emergency in March after at least 15 of its soldiers were killed in an attack near the town of Ouallam.
This was the backdrop to the tragedy of Oct. 4. Details about the attack are still emerging, but what we know for sure is that a small detachment of American soldiers attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group was in the region to conduct what was described to commanders as a “low-risk” patrol alongside Nigerien partner forces north of Niamey. According to U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, military planners considered an attack in the region “unlikely.” But on this occasion, the troops were drawn into a devastating ambush, where they faced withering fire and overwhelming force before help arrived in the form of a French military detachment that included air support and elite forces trained specifically for this kind of mission, according to sources familiar with French military deployments in the region.
The surge in violence on both sides of the Mali-Niger border should make us question why the Pentagon or military commanders would deem any mission in the area “low risk,” but it should also prompt us to look more deeply into the local contexts that have either given rise to these militant groups or allowed them to continue operating and expanding their presence.
So who are the militants likely involved in the attack? Although most Nigerien and American defense sources have attributed the attack to fighters affiliated with Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and his self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, no group has yet claimed the attack, and Islamic State channels have been notably careful in discussing it. Sahrawi formed his movement in May 2015 after splitting away from another militant group and declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but the declaration was only accepted toward the end of 2016. The group has formally claimed only one attack in the country — on a high-security prison near Niamey in October 2016. Another group that can’t be ruled out at this early stage is the more recently formed AQIM conglomerate in the Sahel, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which claimed an attack in Niger’s Tahoua region in July and a number of others recently in Mali near the Niger border.
Both groups are deeply enmeshed in local conflicts including historical intercommunal disputes, fights over pastureland and cattle, and discontent over development and government treatment of rural areas. In the regions of Tahoua and Tillabéri on the border with Mali, which have been under a state of emergency since March, local sources have repeatedly alleged government repression of local nomadic populations — particularly ethnic Fulani — in ongoing counterterrorism operations there. Similar incidents have occurred on the Malian side of the border, where Nigerien-supported groups have allegedly used counterterrorism operations to settle local scores, further fueling the violence and in some cases pushing communities to align with jihadi forces.
While these conflicts have larger regional ramifications and involve groups that claim affiliation with global jihadi brands, they also involve intricate local dynamics that cannot be ignored or reduced to any terrorist group’s global ambitions. Both the GSIM and Sahrawi’s group are embedded in local communities and leverage local social and political tensions and conflict to recruit and operate safely, even if they affiliate themselves with global jihadi brands. And while the threat to international interests in the region is real, it is these local communities whose lives are affected the most by these groups and by government responses — and also the local communities that will be most able to constrain them.
There is much we still do not know about what happened near Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4. But instead of looking at Niger as just another outpost of the global war on terror, our attention should be on the local and regional environments where these groups operate — and where the brunt of any increased military action will be felt the most.